My thoughts on Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Written as part of my application for university in late 2016.
The historic article ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey was a ground breaking and powerful piece of journalism penned in the immediate aftermath of the first use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan during the latter stages of the second world war.
Written in a highly literal style with hard hitting descriptions of the then un-heard of horrors of nuclear war, the article focuses on six survivors, telling the reader of the event through their eyes. For me, the way the piece is written gives it a far deeper impact, and its novel-like composition allows Hersey to graphically describe the experiences of his interviewees without portraying himself as exploitative or merely aiming for the shock value of his words.
The stories of the survivors are told almost as an episodic mini series, each one beginning with the normality and mundaneness of the individuals day, connecting with the reader through relatable experiences such as cooking breakfast, helping neighbours or moving furniture. The survivors almost become characters, allowing us to bond with them in the same way as we would read an adventure novel. As the event unfolds, we begin to feel their pain, fear and desperateness. This is something that I find to be often lacking in more traditional journalistic articles, with the people and stories portrayed still remaining alien and artificial, no matter how descriptive the language, or graphic the image.
Although long, Hersey’s article retains the ability to hold peoples attention both because of the shocking and unforgiving nature of the material, and through its use and preference for simplistic language and focus on the human aspect of the bombing and subsequent events. Hersey does not allocate much time within the article to discuss the complexities of the bomb, the logistics, or even the reaction from outside the city from either the American or Japanese forces. Instead, he focuses his story purely on the people, and it reads like the spoken word of each and every one of them. The horrific injuries, the terrible sights and human suffering witnessed are all represented in unflinching detail, forming a powerful and unforgettable narrative.
At the time of its publication, shortly after the end of the second world war, the article was seen as sensationalist, shocking and groundbreaking. Hersey made a bold statement by writing about the ‘enemy’ of his nation, who up until a few months before had been demonised in the American and British press. By telling the story through the eyes of Japanese and German survivors, he made the article all the more shocking and terrifying to the American people. The events told are the result of an American bomb. This is a bold and brazen message to portray following a great military victory.
For me, John Hersey’s account of Hiroshima will forever remain one of my favourite and most respected pieces of journalism. Its unflinching narrative of the dawn of the atomic age still resonates as one of the most vividly descriptive and deeply shocking articles that I have read. It tackled an enormously divisive and controversial event, which remains one of mankind’s most debated mistakes. his writing speaks to me as a fan of classical literature, with the style and pacing of his story reminiscent of some of my most treasured books, and the way he presents the facts in a simple, and precise manner leave me in doubt as to why Hiroshima ranks high in the history of modern journalism. It rightly shocked the world when it was first published in 1946, and it should continue to shock the world now, and in many years to come.
George Janes, 2018