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The Most Sublime Read of 1946

The mummy’s nightmare: disintegration of souls, and this is precisely the ultra secret and supersensitive function of the atom bomb: a Soul Killer, to alleviate an escalating soul glut.”
—William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands


In 1946, one year after the end of the Second World War, the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Hermann Hesse for, according to NobelPrize.org, “his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.” The year also saw a crop of now-classic novels, including William Lindsay Gresham’s noir mind-trip Nightmare Alley and Robert Penn Warren’s dramatic political exposé All the King’s Men, both later adapted into memorable films.


Also published that year was a United States government report written by a committee of men with stiff-sounding names and dull titles like Major Walter C. Young and Captain Henry L. Barnett and Lieutenant Colonel David B. Parker. Collectively, the dozen or so authors were known as The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group. Their report is bluntly titled The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (available at Gutenberg.org). There was an accompanying film, a newsreel commissioned by the US Army Signal Corps Pictoral Division, titled The Atom Strikes! (available at Archive.org).


Veering from genre to genre, the report is a remarkable read that resembles by turns science fiction, classic travelogue, eyewitness testimony, philosophical speculation, and outright propaganda. Even staid statistical analysis leaps off the page due to the extraordinary subject being measured: the effectiveness of weapons designed to destroy cities in a single strike. The report is arguably the first text of the atomic age and in its strange shifts in tone and style, in its use of narrative disruption and intentional disorientation, it follows the precedent of pulp science-fiction and anticipates the strategies of displacement employed later by post-modern novelists. 


This unexpected result derives from the creators attempting to express, in popular media forms of the time, an event that can only be described, in an aesthetic sense, as sublime. I mean this in the old–fashioned, Burkean sense of the word: something so big, so massive—so shocking and blinding—that the mind cannot comprehend it in its totality. It is the sublime that permeates and undermines the intentions of the The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group and the US Army Signal Corps Pictoral Division. It forges from dry bureaucratic media a work of art that can be placed with the classic novels and films of the early atomic era.


“The greatest scientific achievement in history.”


On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped a plutonium bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, on Japan. President Harry S. Truman announced on radio “an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy.”

The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group note that Truman’s words “marked the first public announcement of the greatest scientific achievement in history.” The achievement, as it were, is clearly stated: “The atomic bomb, first tested in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, had just been used against a military target.” According to this report, “More than 4 square miles of the city were instantly and completely devastated. 66,000 people were killed, and 69,000 injured.”
Three days later, a uranium bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, “totally destroying 1 ½ square miles of the city, killing 39,000 persons, and injuring 25,000 more.”


The extent of this devastation was immediately appreciated and has formed the backbone of nuclear weapon policy ever since: “The effect of this terrible fear of the potential danger from even a single enemy plane on the lives of the peoples of the world in the event of any future war can easily be conjectured.”


It may be easy to conjecture, but it is not so easy to measure, as the bizarre writing of the report demonstrates. The unexpected aesthetic tension in the report comes from the attempt to scientifically measure the outcome of the bombing while also expressing the sublime terror the bombs create. Put another way, The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group attempted to tabulate the sublime.


The Selection of the Targets and the Introduction of the Heat Ray


As a government report, the text is often startlingly candid. The damage was so awe-inspiring that, “It was not at first apparent to even trained observers visiting the two Japanese cities which of the two bombs had been the most effective.” The bombing of the cities is treated in the report not as an act of war, but as a scientific experiment. The outcome of the experiment, the measured effectiveness, is the amount of destruction and death each bomb could cause.


The decision of which cities to bomb was critical to the success of the experiment. Parameters for selection included: “the targets should contain a large percentage of closely-built frame buildings and other construction that would be most susceptible to damage by blast and fire.” “The maximum blast effect of the bomb was calculated to extend over an area of approximately 1 mile in radius; therefore the selected targets should contain a densely built-up area of at least this size.” “The first target should be relatively untouched by previous bombing, in order that the effect of a single atomic bomb could be determined.”


The report is filled with tables and graphs measuring the effectiveness of the destruction. In the odd logic of bureaucratic language, the terror is simply referred to as “X.” Here is a table for Nagasaki:


What is X? In the report’s explication, the bomb (which detonates above the target, like a miniature sun) is a heat ray:


All of these radiations travel at the same speed; this, the speed of light, is 186,000 miles per second. The radiations are intense enough to kill people within an appreciable distance from the explosion, and are in fact the major cause of deaths and injuries apart from mechanical injuries. The greatest number of radiation injuries was probably due to the ultra-violet rays which have a wavelength slightly shorter than visible light and which caused flash burn comparable to severe sunburn. After these, the gamma rays of ultra short wave length are most important; these cause injuries similar to those from over-doses of X-rays.


Death rays were a staple of science fiction from its earliest days. H.G Wells’s depiction of the Martian heat ray in The War of the Worlds (1898) is strikingly similar to the descriptions in the Hiroshima report:


Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire. 


Then, by the light of their own destruction, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run. 


I stood staring, not as yet realizing that this was death leaping from man to man in that little distant crowd. All I felt was that it was something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash of light, and a man fell headlong and lay still; and as the unseen shaft of heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dry furze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames. And far away towards Knaphill I saw the flashes of trees and hedges and wooden buildings suddenly set alight.



The combination of science and terror is summed up in the word that follows in the name of the genre: fiction. To understand the atomic bomb literalized would require fiction; it made real what could only previously exist in the imagination. When it comes to describing the effect of the bombs on the cities, the writers of the report had no other equipment to use except the tropes and figures of fiction. Whether or consciously or not, fiction was their only point of reference in the strange land they created.


The Late Season of a City’s Identity


“A desert of clear-swept, charred remains, with only a few strong building frames left standing was a terrifying sight.” It is clear-eyed men of science who offer this dramatic description of Hiroshima. Yet turning cities into deserts is a metaphor, not science, and remains poetic if not quantified. How do you quantify metaphor?
Groping for a word that can act as a catalyst for making metaphor literal, The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group uses “identity”. It writes: “The atomic explosion almost completely destroyed Hiroshima’s identity as a city.”


Hiroshima’s identity is now fixed. It will forever be the first city on which an atomic bomb was dropped, a distinction echoed in both history and pop culture, the most salient example being Alain Resnais’s mediation on war and peace in his 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour.


But The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group meant something far more fundamental by the word, identity. It meant that the destruction was so immense that Hiroshima was no longer identifiable as a city. Yet the report shifts the identity of the city to yet another metaphor, this one glass.
The paragraph continues, “Over a fourth of the population was killed in one stroke and an additional fourth seriously injured, so that even if there had been no damage to structures and installations the normal city life would still have been completely shattered.” Hiroshima, a “normal city”, becomes glass that shatters at a single stroke. As if to underscore this metaphor the paragraph ends with the jagged, incomplete observation, “Glass was broken up to 12 miles.”


Time and again, the report writers resort to metaphor to explain how X altered the identity—the normalcy—of the attacked cities. Often the metaphors appear in iterations that become hypnotic in their repetition, their meaning only clear when the iterations are placed side-by-side, the shards assembled by the reader (writers such as William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet would often employ this technique). For example, an “autumnal” metaphor emerges repeatedly before fully materializing:


“The hillsides up to a radius of 8,000 feet were scorched, giving them an autumnal appearance.” “The hillsides in Nagasaki were scorched by the flash radiation of heat as far as 8,000 feet from X; this scorching gave the hillsides the appearance of premature autumn.” “Another striking effect of the flash burn was the autumnal appearance of the bowl formed by the hills on the three sides of the explosion point. The ridges are about 1.5 miles from X. Throughout this bowl the foliage turned yellow, although on the far side of the ridges the countryside was quite green. This autumnal appearance of the trees extended to about 8,000 feet from X.”


Changing the seasons from summer to autumn evinces a god-like power which The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group also deploys in a repeated simile of giant hands: “The steel frames of all buildings within a mile of the explosion were pushed away, as by a giant hand, from the points of detonation.” Again, “But the blast wave from an atomic bomb is so large that it can engulf whole buildings, no matter how great their size, pushing them over as though a giant hand had given them a shove.”


When the report writers do eschew metaphor and offer exact measurements, the effect remains bizarre. The style is reminiscent of ancient geographers and travel writers, Ptolemy or Marco Polo, describing faraway lands and strange events in language that hovers between fantasy and reality exactly because of its precision—a style that would have a direct impact on early science fiction.


One more interesting feature connected with heat radiation was the charring of fabric to different degrees depending upon the color of the fabric. A number of instances were recorded in which persons wearing clothing of various colors received burns greatly varying in degree, the degree of burn depending upon the color of the fabric over the skin in question. For example a shirt of alternate light and dark gray stripes, each about 1/8 of an inch wide, had the dark stripes completely burned out but the light stripes were undamaged; and a piece of Japanese paper exposed nearly 1 1/2 miles from X had the characters which were written in black ink neatly burned out.


Though made of familiar material, this no longer sounds like the Earth we know. This is instead the terminus of a fantastic voyage, a description of the altered physics of a strange world from a ‘30s-era sci-fi comic-book, like Astounding Stories of Super Science.


Although not a member of The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group, the prime mover behind the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer would, in a televised interview in 1965, famously invoke an exotic god to describe the bomb. Recalling his experience of the first atomic test blast, he said, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”


Giant hands smashing cities of glass, heat rays turning the hills to premature autumn, multi-armed gods destroying fantastic worlds… this is the stuff of pulp sci-fi as much as it is of the Bhagavad-Gita. In the end, the terror was too sublime and the report writers could not escape from the fiction required to describe their science. In Hiroshima, fantasy became reality in the most horrifyingly sublime way imaginable.


“You are not endowed with memory.”


So says the Japanese man to his French lover in Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The statement is both observation and accusation. What she finds in Hiroshima, the film shows us, is a psychological reflection of her own wartime tragedy: the murder of her lover, a German soldier, in occupied France.


The Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group was also not endowed with memory, for none of its members were present at the bombing. However, the report includes a snippet of an interview with the aptly named Commander F. L.  Ashworth, whose job was to ensure that the second bomb, Fat Man, was dropped successfully. The sudden and brief introduction of first person narration (the only instance in the body of the report) creates a character voice that reacts strangely with the sci-fi-like text into which it is embedded.


During the approach to the target the special instruments installed in the plane told us that the bomb was ready to function. We were prepared to drop the second atomic bomb on Japan. But fate was against us, for the target [the city of Kokura] was completely obscured by smoke and haze. Three times we attempted bombing runs, but without success. Then with anti-aircraft fire bursting around us and with a number of enemy fighters coming up after us, we headed for our secondary target, Nagasaki.


In other words, Nagasaki, which was not the first desired target, was destroyed by bad luck. Splicing a human voice into the scientific reportage is an attempt to humanize the event, but it also introduces an unintended irony. Despite the god-like power of the bomb, the US military, in a moment that turns farce into tragedy, is still dependent on the weather. Terry Southern would use this irony as the lodestone of his re-write of the script for Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964).


The only other eyewitness account in the Hiroshima report is included as a long appendix, a narrative written by Father John A. Siemes, a Jesuit priest and professor of modern philosophy at Tokyo’s Catholic University who was living at the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Nagatsuka, on the outskirts of Hiroshima. His account was first published in Jesuit Missions Magazine and later reprinted for a wider, more secular, audience in Time magazine of 11 February, 1946.


The good father would also participate in the propaganda film The Atom Strikes! (1945) He is interviewed in English, and with his soft voice and baby-face comes across as earnest and sincere, blissfully oblivious to the prominent place in the history of propaganda that the US Army is assigning him; for he is the one charged with endowing the report and film with memory.


The inclusion of an already published eyewitness account as an appendix to a government report presents a metatextual strategy in which an eyewitness corroborates the scientific findings of the investigating group. This moves the text beyond the sci-fi travelogue of the previous sections and into the realm of direct reportage, albeit with the added benefit of a priest and philosopher acting as the scribe of the horror. Who better to attest to the Jove-like power of the bomb than an educated man of god? To this end, Siemes’s language tends to be less metaphorical, paradoxically more direct and methodical, than Manhattan Project Atomic Bomb Investigating Group:


Suddenly—the time is approximately 8:14—the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light. As I make for the door, it doesn’t occur to me that the light might have something to do with enemy planes. On the way from the window, I hear a moderately loud explosion which seems to come from a distance and, at the same time, the windows are broken in with a loud crash. There has been an interval of perhaps ten seconds since the flash of light. I am sprayed by fragments of glass.


The studious prose continues for pages of dispassionate descriptions of the horror of the hours and days following X, the “desert of clear-swept, charred remains” that the investigating group encountered filled with ragging fires and staggering wounded and mounds of bodies. The appendix—and the entire report—concludes with a philosophical conjecture that, although it ends with a question, nonetheless affirms the totally destructive success of the experiment:


We have discussed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?


Siemes reads this statement verbatim in The Atom Strikes! As in response, in the next scene the American voice over intones “The business of living goes on in Hiroshima.” An image of a jerrybuilt hut in a broken landscape appears on the screen. While the voice over suggests that living is a type of “business” beyond good and evil, what is remarkable about the film is the near total absence of any Japanese, living or otherwise.


The only Japanese depicted in close-up is one of the famous “blast shadows”, the outline of a vaporized pedestrian. Elsewhere, we see some ragged people in the distance salvaging scrap to build shelters amidst the ruins. The newsreel depicts the destruction literally, the choice of visuals substantiating the claims of the scientific report. The images suggest that this is what the wrath of an alien god looks like; silence, emptiness, desolation.


The final voice over of the newsreel insists that words are superfluous, that the record of the event is self-evident and requires no utterance, only mute image, to convey meaning: “This is the record. Endless man-hours of work. Two B-29s. Two atomic bombs three days apart. Two cities. The tabulation of that record speaks for itself.”


The most sublime terror of all is empty silence.

William L. Gibson’s novel Singapore Black, the first in a trilogy of hard-boiled crime fiction set in 1890s Malaya, is now available from Monsoon Books. He is Academic Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at SAE Institute, Jakarta. Learn more at www.williamlgibson.com.


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