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Nuclear Ruminations

[A mockup of the Fat Man nuclear device. Image via US Department of Defense] [A mockup of the Fat Man nuclear device. Image via US Department of Defense]

I was in Japan this August for two reasons. First, to give a talk at a conference hosted by Princeton University and the Prefecture of Hiroshima titled “Global Hiroshima: The History, Politics and Legacies of Nuclear Weapons.” Second, I wanted to attend the peace ceremonies commemorating the seventy-second year of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was a strange time to be travelling in Japan. North Korea had just tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 that presumably could now strike targets within the continental United States. Angry words threatening nuclear attacks were flying from both US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Japanese politicians were talking more and more about reversing the pacific orientation of the country, so as to be better prepared to preempt a North Korean strike—thus also decreasing its dependence on the security umbrella provided by an unreliable US president. Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spoke of the evils of nuclear weapons at both peace ceremonies, refused to unequivocally rule out that possibility at a press conference immediately following the Hiroshima peace ceremony. Peace activists in Japan were gathered to protest Abe’s presence at the peace ceremonies. Japan is a “breakout state”—able to acquire nuclear weapons on relatively short notice if it chose to exercise that option. But that would require a constitutional amendment and contending with the strong anti-nuclear sentiments that run through the country. As the only country in the world that has experienced wartime nuclear bomb use, Japan has so much to teach us about nuclear dangers, nuclear choices, and our collective nuclear futures. I wrote these two pieces to make sense of my time thinking about nuclear war and peace over the couple of weeks I spent in Japan.

Nuclear Ruins through Time

I stand before the ruins of a nuclear world. On one end of the museum are the imposing remnants of the Urakami Cathedral, darkened with the radioactive soot that rained down from the sky that ill-fated morning of 9 August 1945, when an atomic bomb laid waste the city of Nagasaki. I walk past this wasteland to the glass cabinets that contain the more mundane remainders of an uncontainable devastation—a battered cooking pot, cracked dinner plates and cups, and a container bent out of shape. I imagine what it must have been like to walk that wasteland, picking up the debris of a life and family extinguished in an instant. You would not yet know that you also carry the traces of that war within the mutating cells of your own body—eventually forming keloids and cancers that would pass through generations, on to a future time. I try to imagine, but I can’t—because time stands still at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. At 11:02 in the morning, to be precise. The moment when “Fat Man” exploded over the spot that is now marked outside the museum by an unobtrusive static symbol simply called “the hypocenter.”

Clocks that stopped ticking at 11:02 are all over the museum. The precise moment when time forked into a backward and a forward. This was the moment when Nagasaki was bombed back into the proverbial Stone Age. “Bomb them back into the stone age” is a phrase attributed to Curtis Le May, the US Air Force general who designed the firebombing strategy that burned two-thirds of all Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians even before the better-known atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do I walk toward the Stone Age as I walk backward in time to see these cracked and broken reminders of the little bits of life from a faraway era?

But the bomb has an afterlife that also moves forward: the afterlife of radioactivity. The unceasing, invisible, slowly mutating forever of an afterlife that lives in bodies, in vegetation and on organisms, in soil and air. Of its three-pronged approach to killing and maiming—“heat, blast, radiation”—the last kills forever and ever—for thousands of years. Not just in the Stone Age born of its explosion, but all along its production chain.

I am startled to stumble upon familiar sights of home toward the end of the museum. Hanford, Washington, is the site of the plant where the plutonium for Fat Man was produced, and where fifty-six million gallons of radioactive waste sits in leaky tanks. I live fifty miles downwind from that site. That contaminated wasteland links me to Nagasaki, whose inhabitants are also linked to miners inhaling radioactive dust in (then Belgian) Congo from where the uranium for Fat Man came, and to the communities breathing radioactive fallout around Trinity, New Mexico, where “the gadget” was tested before it was exported. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum reminds me that that most potent instrument of modernity that threatens to take us back to a time before modernity lives on through a time far beyond modernity. Harming, damaging, slowly killing people and communities that straddle enemy lines and geopolitical boundaries, people and communities radioactively connected through the long-term damage of nuclear weapons production and use.

I am in Nagasaki on 9 August 2017, at the peace ceremony commemorating that deadly morning seventy-two years ago. I bow my head at the offering of water to remember those who cried so desperately for water as they burned to death in the Stone Age. I pay my homage to the growing registry of known dead, updated every year on this occasion, connecting the present to the past. I listen to the powerful words of the eighty-eight-year-old survivor who urges us toward a future time of a nuclear-free world. I stand in silence with everyone at 11:02, precisely, to commemorate the moment when time was divided into a past and a future. That same day, President Trump responds to North Korean belligerence by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen before.” I stand in a world which has seen fire and fury. At 11:02 a.m. on 9 August 1945. I recall another clock: the Doomsday Clock. It now stands at 11:57.5, moved by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists half a minute closer to the midnight of apocalypse after the election of a US president prone to reckless talk. I think of stone ages. I think of nuclear ruins carried in bodies all over the world. I wish for time to pause.

The Pedagogy of Peace

Children are everywhere in the peace parks and the atomic museums at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is early August. It is hot and humid. It is that time of the year when the US dropped two atomic bombs, one in each city. The peace parks are gearing up for the peace ceremonies. Lots of children come to visit.

Schoolchildren on fieldtrips and schoolchildren with their parents. They are at the museums to learn of the tragic history of atomic bombing. I see them walk through the panels. Some read the cards. More spend time at the interactive kiosks. Several take notes. Many linger at the bright yellow life-size replica of Fat Man at the Nagasaki museum, the plutonium bomb that was dropped over the city. It is a dazzling display that speaks power and might. I can see why the children are drawn to it. These schoolchildren are here to learn. They are learning. In school uniforms that are sharp. Clean and ironed. Neat.

On the other side of the glass panels are also school uniforms. But these ones are battered, burnt, and bloodied. Torn school shoes. The bodies that inhabited theses clothes and shoes are long dead. These long dead bodies have names. Here is a child who was instantly vaporized into thick air. This child was pulled out of a rubble, badly burned, died a few days later. And photographs. So many photographs of children now dead. Children, living and dead, are everywhere at this museum.

Pictures of children in school uniforms. Covered in blood. I look for the famous shadow of a skipping girl frozen into concrete by the heat ray. I see a picture of a mother with her infant suckling a drooping breast waiting for medical attention. The photo at which my husband stands the longest. Of the young boy carrying on his shoulder what appears to be his sleeping baby brother. His brother is dead, and the young boy is waiting for his turn to cremate his dead baby brother’s body. I can hear my husband’s heart breaking.

We brought our own two teenage American sons to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We show them that picture of brothers from another time. We want them to bear witness. We want them to remember. My children come from a violent world. Where heavily-armed militias face off heavily-armed police. Of video games that culminate in nuclear apocalypse. Where a massive arsenal of operational nuclear weapons sits on hair-trigger alert, many times the size of the bombs that devastated the two cities we visit seventy-two years after those bombs were dropped. Where the President talks of triggering fire and fury.

It is a hot and humid day. My sons are distracted. They cannot always sustain their attention. Sometimes they bicker. They try our patience. But they are teenagers. Besides, who among us is adequate to this task?

We prepared our sons for this visit, of course. They are studied in the technology of the bomb. They are learned in the awesome might of the United States that unleashed a mighty program to build the bomb. They are of the knowledge that the plutonium that built the Nagasaki bomb was produced in their backyard, in Washington state, the very same that incinerated those dead children whose broken uniforms make them turn their eyes. They know all this. From the books they have read. From us. But I want them to know it in their muscles, and their bones, and their hearts. Not mistake another’s suffering for their own. Not speak for another’s pain. But to be moved by pain and suffering. To feel the burden of their obligations in the concrete. I want them to know and feel what it means to be children of the most powerful country in the world. I wonder if that helps replace hubris with humility.

I like to think that the Japanese schoolchildren, as they walk through these museums, also pause at the occasional reminders of Japanese crimes of war. Of the Koreans and the Chinese and the Allies who were victims of the Japanese before and as the Japanese were victims of the Americans, in a cycle in which perpetrators and victims return fire and fury over and over again. I like to think that all these schoolchildren who share the museum that day, American and Japanese, can learn to think in complex ways about complicity and responsibility, can learn to stand in solidarity to break this cycle of violence. Now more than ever, as fighting words fly from North Korea, the United States, and even Japan. Because they lived to see that other schoolchildren in another time died in crimes committed in their names.

I like to think of my sons as budding peace activists, but are they? What pedagogy takes one from a violent world toward peace? My boys fold paper cranes at the peace ceremonies, joining a long tradition started by Sadako Sasai, two years old when the bomb blasted Hiroshima, who resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes to avert the untimely death that came at age twelve. My boys sit with other Japanese kids at computer consoles at the Nagasaki atomic museum where they design their own messages of peace to leave for others who come after them. They do not want me to look over their shoulders. They do not want me to read what they have written. I make peace with their demand. I am a mother who has demanded peace from them. But I know that they are on their own.

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