August 07, 2007

Between Little Boy and Fat Man

The convention is to recite the names of the bombs in reverse order: Fat Man and Little Boy. It rolls off the tongue more smoothly that way. Nevertheless, Little Boy was dropped first, on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, 62 years ago yesterday. Two days from now will mark the 62nd anniversary of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. That atomic bomb was nicknamed Fat Man. They differed somewhat in design and materials. Fat Man was designed along the lines of the Trinity shot at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July, 1945, the only nuclear detonation in history before the Hiroshima bomb. So that means when the bomb doors were opened on the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, that fateful morning above Hiroshima, the bomb that fell was of a design never before exploded. Little Boy was a "gun" device in which a subcritical mass of U-235 was accelerated by high explosives down a barrel toward another subcritical mass of U-235 and a neutron initiator. The chain reactions blow the bomb apart and, of course, anything and anybody anywhere near it. So you would be tempted to think that the Japanese citizens in Hiroshima that bright summer day had a fair chance the bomb would fizzle; I mean, you drop a cylindrical thingamajig out of a plane, you've never tested it before, it might just fall all the way to earth and smash a trolley or a couple of cars or someone's roof, right? It was heavy enough to do that kind of damage; about 8,900 pounds, and it was ten feet long and about 28" in diameter.

Nah, there was no real chance of a dud. The physicists were confident Little Boy would work, and work it did. It exploded about 1,800 feet above Hiroshima with the force of 13 thousand tons of dynamite, and it killed somewhere between 70,000 and 130,000 people with its immediate effects. Reconnaissance flights were flown over Hiroshima to review the damage, which must have been very impressive. So now, let us imagine that it is exactly 62 years ago. Yesterday we killed, to use a reasonable average of the guesses, about 100,000 human beings, and because of radioactive sickness and genetic damage, the carnage is really just getting started. The Japanese haven't surrendered yet, however. We've still got an awful lot of American soldiers out there in the Pacific, scattered all over the jungle islands, waiting for the fateful order to advance past Iwo Jima and attack the Japanese mainland. As bad as Guadalcanal and Iwo and Okinawa and Bataan and the rest of the Hells on Earth have been, maybe those assault troops haven't seen anything yet. Wait till you try to take Japan away from the Japanese.

On August 9, 1945, a different B-29 with a different pilot with a different target, Nagasaki this time, took off from the airfield at Tinian, armed with Fat Man. Fat Man was a bruiser, an ugly, inelegant spherical thing, 5 feet in diameter, over 10 feet long and weighing more than half a ton. It was a plutonium implosion device, just like Trinity. And man, that sucker could put out. 21 kilotons of TNT from the detonation, and the mushroom cloud rose 60,000 feet into the air. The immediate death toll is in dispute, although there is general agreement the bomb detonated away from its intended target, and the main part of Nagasaki was protected by intervening hills. Still, at least 45,000 people died instantly. No one is sure, really, of the exact number. There are estimates all over the place. In Nagasaki Peace Park the estimate is given as 75,000.

What do we do with this knowledge? J. Robert Oppenheimer suffered from remorse, of course; as the "father" of the atomic bomb, he knew what kind of monster he had sired and unleashed on the world. One thing I decided a long time ago is that I will not try to figure out the correct moral position on the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. I don't think it's my place, and I've never felt it was my job to have a definite opinion about everything. I wasn't a Marine corporal in a landing boat going ashore at Iwo Jima against enemy machine gun nests. If I were, and I could honestly have said I'll take my chances against another machine gun on the Japanese mainland to spare the world the use of nuclear weapons, then my opinion would have some weight. Or how about the argument in favor of a "demonstration" drop of a nuclear weapon to convince the Japanese (and probably the Russians) that resistance was futile? I don't know. I wasn't there. Japanese resistance in the closing months of the war was fanatical. Maybe, in the macabre calculus of war death, the sacrifice of two cities ultimately saved lives, both Japanese and American. I think it's presumptuous, at this great remove from the events, to wave away all context of the most horrible war the world has ever seen and make calm judgments about "obvious" courses of action which would have been morally superior to those actually made by Americans at the time.

So Oppenheimer, a much brighter man than I, expressed this idea: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." Such interesting language; they have known sin. Not that they committed it, not that they are ultimately responsible for it. But that they have known it. How could they not? That's why we should remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to remember this pause between Little Boy and Fat Man. To know mass annihilation, whatever the reason or justification for it, is to know sin and the darkness at the core of the human heart.

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