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Human Impacts of Nuclear Warfare Highlighted in Film Screened at AAAS
"White Light/Black Rain" director Steven Okazaki and crew film survivor Sakue Shimohira
Photograph © and courtesy of Ben Hamamoto, Farallon Films
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred over 60 years ago, but the aftermath continues and serves as a warning of what can happen to human life following a nuclear explosion. A screening of "White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," a film that vividly and poignantly depicts and describes the impacts of nuclear warfare on human life, was hosted and co-sponsored by AAAS.
The 86-minute film focuses on the experiences of 14 survivors, many of whom speak publicly for the first time. In the film, the survivors described what they were doing just before the bomb hit and then what followed the white flash of the bomb's detonation. Four Americans who were involved in dropping the bombs are also interviewed in the film.
"People need to be reminded of the consequences of using nuclear weapons," said Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director of AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. "The consequences are on a scale that's fundamentally different from other weapons in our arsenal."
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) co-sponsored the "White Light/Black Rain" screening with AAAS. The free public screening on 12 March was one of the 115 films shown as part of the 2008 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. The festival concluded 22 March.
"Many people don't know that there are approximately 25,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, mostly in the United States and Russia," said Alyssa Go, who arranged the screening at AAAS and is a program assistant for international and nuclear programs at NRDC. Go chose the 2006 film "White Light/Black Rain," produced by Farallon Films and directed by Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki, in part because it provides a straightforward account from survivors of the 1945 bombings. The environmental aspects of nuclear warfare—from mining uranium to radiation fallout—also made the film an appropriate choice for the festival's theme.
Go, a 2006 graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, mentioned how her generation did not have to experience the Cold War fears. "But the 9/11 attacks brought up the threat again," said Go, putting into context how the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings remains a timely topic. U.S. discussions in recent years regarding the production, replacement and dismantling of nuclear warheads also keep the Japanese bombings relevant, she said.
In a talk before the AAAS screening, nuclear historian Robert Norris described the historical context surrounding the still-controversial decisions to use the atomic weapons and listed several common reasons for their use. "The dominant reason to use the bomb was to end the war and save American lives," said Norris, a senior research associate at the NRDC. "Defeat and surrender are two different things," he said, "The Japanese were defeated but were not surrendering."
Norris also described how the "momentum of the project" contributed to the dropping of the bombs. President Harry Truman "continued policies that were in place before he took office," said Norris, adding that if Truman had decided to not use the bombs, then he might have faced even greater opposition.
A survivor of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb; her "skin is burned in a pattern corresponding to the dark portions of a kimono worn at the time of the explosion"
[Photograph public domain, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives; description by Jonathan Heller]
About 144,000 Japanese died 6 August 1945 when the 15-kiloton uranium bomb "Little Boy" detonated over Hiroshima. Three days later, 70,000 Japanese died when the 21-kiloton plutonium bomb "Fat Man" detonated over the outskirts of Nagasaki. About 160,000 people have died since 1945 due to delayed effects of the bombings. Survivors faced horrific problems, including health disorders, food shortages, and guilt over surviving when so many of their loved ones perished.
Despite the tremendous impact of the bombings, the opening scenes of "White Light/Black Rain" show how members of Japan's younger generations do not immediately recall this period in their country's history. Present-day teenagers in Japan struggled when interviewed for the film about what happened in their country.
"1945?" one teenager smirked, as if it was impossible to remember anything that happened that long ago. "Something important happened here?" wondered another Japanese teenager, wearing a purple parka. Their ignorance is perhaps due to their birthdates: 75% of the current Japanese population was born after 1945.
"White Light/Black Rain" goes on to tell the stories of 14 survivors, such as Sakue Shimohira, who was a 10-year-old schoolgirl when the bomb hit. "I really don't have any happy memories. All I remember is fear, of running and hiding," said Shimohira. "I carry this pain in my heart."
Although Shimohira's physical wounds are hardly noticeable compared to many of the other survivors in "White Light/Black Rain," she remains emotionally wounded by the event that instantly killed her mother and then later—due to despair-driven suicide—her sister. "There's the courage to live and the courage to die," said Shimohira, who is among many survivors who considered suicide and is still so grief-stricken that she cannot say her sister's name out loud. "I chose the courage to live."
When the bomb detonated, one survivor recalled being thrown 150 feet and over a field. Another survivor was thrown into the air, hit a wall and then lost consciousness. Ground temperatures reached about 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and people near the bomb's epicenter were vaporized on the spot.
Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa said his brother screamed that it was hot just before he died. "The only things that moved in Hiroshima were the flies moving over the dead," Nakazawa said of the bombing's aftermath.
Following the white flash of the bomb's detonation, one survivor recalled that black rain started falling. "Everything was black," he said. Included in the black landscape were many bodies, described as carbonized by one survivor. Another survivor, Shigeko Sasamori, one of the 25 Hiroshima Maidens who came to the United States for plastic surgery, said: "My face was like a black ball."
The film also recounts the health problems encountered by many who were exposed to the blasts--one survivor described a "a life of sickness." Infections, hair loss, bleeding, purple spots, lethargy, and loss of consciousness were among the strange and frequently untreatable symptoms they experienced.
A survivor of a nuclear bomb
Physical and emotional problems continue to haunt them. "Most survivors look fine on the outside, but they live with the bomb everyday," said Shuntaro Hida, who was a young military doctor at the time of the bombing and began treating victims as soon as the explosion occurred. "Survivors face discrimination, they can't get jobs," Hida said. "If they get married, they could have deformed children."
One survivor said she had had six miscarriages and described strange tumors that "seem to pop up everywhere." Another survivor allowed the documentary crew to film as his wife applied ointment to his scarred back. "I've shown you my wounds, because I want you to know that this should never happen again," he said.
Another survivor had a somewhat forgiving view on the bombing that killed his entire family. "I didn't hold a grudge," said Nakazawa, who lost not only his brother, but his parents and two other siblings. The film suggested that Nakazawa's lack of resentment might result from the fact that some Japanese believed that since they had started the war on the United States, their government should take responsibility for the bomb victims.
As a result of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the United States announced a total victory over and unconditional surrender of Japan from World War II. But for four Americans interviewed in "White Light/Black Rain," feelings about involvement in the bombings were far from celebratory. For example, Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, a U.S. navigator, said that military personnel reacted in disbelief—they didn't think the bomb could be that powerful. They had been told that the bomb would end or significantly shorten the war. And, after its blast, "there was a feeling this war was over," he said.
"It did what it was designed to do," Van Kirk said. "But it did what war does: It destroys people."
Nearly 200 people attended the "White Light/Black Rain" screening, after which nuclear historian Norris and nuclear fusion expert Arjun Makhijani discussed the film with the audience.
One member of the audience asked about the environmental effects of using nuclear energy. Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, responded that the production of nuclear energy creates a lot of waste that we don't know how to dispose. "Nuclear energy is very costly," Makhijani said. "If it were cheap, then we might be forced to consider it as an energy source. But we don't need the headache."
The discussion ended with the panelists describing how we need to change how we think about nuclear weapons. Said Norris: "The mentality has to be changed in favor of elimination."
24 March 2008