I stood in the Peace Memorial Museum uncomfortably transfixed, staring uneasily through the glass at the gnarled, blackened thing in front of me. I then read the placard next to it. It once belonged to Yoshio Hamada. It was his fingernail. He had taken cover in a barrack when the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima at the climax of World War II. Yoshio’s hand was still on the windowsill when the bomb detonated, exposing his hand to enough radiation to completely deform his fingertips. Since that day blood vessels began to grow in his fingernails and Yoshio would bleed profusely whenever he cut them. Compared to the horrors faced by countless others during the attack, Yoshio seemed lucky. A set of nearby mannequins showed that the bodies and faces of some survivors were burned so badly by the nuclear blasts that their skin hung from their bodies like wax dripping down the shaft of a candlestick.
Before the US “nuked” Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we never knew how nuclear explosions would affect human beings. The survivors of the nuclear attacks, like Yoshio Hamada, cruelly became subjects in a human experiment conducted during the darkest period in humanity’s pursuit of scientific discovery. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial catalogs all of the mortifying results. We learned that nuclear radiation exposure not only causes skin to melt and blood vessels to grow inside fingernails. It also causes, among other ailments, leukemia in the survivors and deformities and mental disorders in the children women carried at the time of the attack.
There were also unfathomable emotional costs, too. Children lost their parents. Parents lost their children. Families were torn apart and lives reduced to rubble, which, unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could never be rebuilt and restored. One wrenching story recounts how a mother traversed the moonscape left behind in the wake of the attack in search of her missing child. She found him on the ground, dead, lying in the fetal position. She knew it was him: his name was etched onto the lunchbox he was still holding. Inside it were the charred remains of the lunch she had prepared for him that day, along with whatever hopes she had harbored in embracing her son again.
Such memories live in a dark, forgotten room in American history. The United States’ decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought humanity to the end of a long and dark hallway. At the end of it we triumphantly opened the door to that room only to find ourselves quickly shutting it, cringing in disgust and fear at the horrors we saw. Knowing the practical consequences of the nuclear attacks was enough for most of us: people died and suffered in the attacks, but it was for a just cause. World War II was finally over and we could celebrate our victory. Walking beyond the door’s threshold and intimately understanding and absorbing the human costs of the attacks was a step too far.
For most of us, the idea of nuclear holocaust is still horrifying in an abstract sense. We cannot possibly bring ourselves to seriously contemplate, in detail, an event so horrible, let alone that event happening to ourselves. Thankfully, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum confronts us with the realities of nuclear war that humanity would have otherwise forgotten. It allows present and future generations to walk into the darkness and meditate on the consequences of nuclear war and how it will personally affect us all. It also opens our minds to a chilling, quite unnerving possibility: that one day our own pictures and belongings could be on display in a similar museum cataloguing the devastation wrought upon our own cities by a nuclear attack.
So long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth, that menacing possibility is quite real. It will forever cast its long shadow over every human life, every country, and every generation until the day comes when the fire at the Cenotaph is extinguished.
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