We should never forget the true horror of nuclear war

Battered religious figures stand watch on a hill above a tattered valley in Nagasaki (Wikimedia Commons)

A news item in the Telegraph on Wednesday made me sit up. Written by Nick Allen from Washington, it gave the information that “the rogue state”, North Korea, “has produced a miniaturised nuclear warhead that can fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile.” Apparently, Kim Jon-un now has “up to 60 nuclear warheads, significantly more than previously thought.” President Trump has responded with his usual exaggerated rhetoric, stating that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

Unfortunately, the world has had intimations of what a nuclear attack (if this is what Trump is actually threatening) would look like, though on a much smaller scale than a modern nuclear arsenal would be capable of. I refer to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Indeed yesterday, when Trump issued his counter-threats to North Korea, also happened to be the anniversary of the Nagasaki nuclear devastation of 9th August 1945 (that of Hiroshima occurred three days earlier, on 6th.)

I have been reading Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard, an American scholar of Japan, its language and history. She has spent ten years interviewing Nagasaki “hibakusha” i.e. people affected by the atomic bomb, including many in-depth interviews with five particular survivors who were all within the radius of the bomb’s impact on that fatal morning. Their graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the nuclear explosion read like something straight out of hell: staggering heat, spontaneous fires, tornado-force winds, scenes of utter ruin.

More than 200,000 people died: those at the hypocentre were vaporised or instantly reduced to carbon; others, their wounds beyond description, died agonisingly days later; yet others after several weeks’ suffering from the (then unknown) effects of radiation sickness. Thousands lived on, physically disfigured, in permanent pain and emotionally scarred for life. The author estimates that 192,000 hibakusha were still alive in 2015. Many were too traumatised to ever speak of the horrors of that day, while others, such as her interviewees, have dedicated their lives to trying to prevent the use of atomic weapons ever again.

I had to remind myself during reading the book that these appalling effects and the numbers killed were small – if that is the right word – compared to what could be unleashed today, whether by a rogue state like North Korea, or in retaliation, by the “fire and fury” promised by President Trump. We literally cannot conceive the aftermath of such warfare, though I daresay experts have secretly drawn up likely scenarios and contingency plans.

Southard writes that “For the average person in Nagasaki, each day in the week after the bombing pulsated with relentless suffering, panic and death.” She adds, “Thousands struggled to survive without housing or adequate food, water, sanitation, medicine or any way to comprehend what had happened to them…”, while “the radiation sickness that followed showed up “the mystifying, confusing and terrifying truth about the invisible power of the bomb.”

Today’s news is also dominated by the escalating war of words between the US and North Korea. Such a verbal war is a recognisable part of the diplomatic scene, with its threats and counter-threats, its sabre-rattling and its posturing. Given the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can only pray and hope that it will remain so.