Hiroshima by John Hersey
Perhaps one of the most famous books every published, when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and was the only article in that issues, Hiroshima was the first indication that many people got about just how devastating nuclear weapons were. And the book is both harrowing and horrifying and is, in my opinion, all the more powerful for the fact that Hersey doesn't indulge in condemnation or make ethical judgements; he just lays out the stories of the people he interviewed plain and simple.
What most emerges from it is just the confusion. Nobody seems to know what’s happening or what to do. So they just stumble around and try and survive. After the dramatic detonation of the bomb itself, which Hersey never describes but only indirectly recounts from the interviewees experiences of it (light and noise and destruction) giving it a greater, almost mystical power, than an actual account would have done, the haunting images arrive just from such confusion. The people congregating in the grounds of a rich man’s house, near the river, with the children alternating between crying and playing; Dr Sasaki working for three days straight as lines of burnt and bloodied people make their way to the hospital and he does the best he can to help them, on his own for the most part until some more doctors arrive. Toshiko Sasaki stuck for days after a bookcase collapses on her leg, breaking it, and then receiving no treatment for it for weeks leaving her crippled; Kleinsorge’s friend running into the fires of the city, believing that he must immolate himself, and the Father stumbling around the city trying to help others; Tanimoto ferrying people back and forth across the river.
The images crafted are all simple, in truth. The people are getting along with surviving in the aftermath and do so fairly quickly. Rumours about what happened are exchanged, with everyone more or less left out of the loop; when the end of the war comes what they’re most surprised about, and cheered about, is for the first time hearing the Emperor’s voice. But against the background of devastation the work, the people, the images, all of them feel eerie and strange. Like watching things at twilight, there’s just something off about it. That all that devastation was caused by one bomb is a sobering and powerful thought, and the narratives combine to create a real sense of the terrifying impact that it had.
Hiroshima is a powerful book. It conveys a strong message of the magnitude of what nuclear weapons can do, and leaves a series of horrifying and haunting images. Whatever your view of nuclear weapons, this is essential reading and arguably a prerequisite for taking part in the debate.
(Note: the version of the book I read was the Penguin Classics edition republished to commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War II. It is the complete book, as originally published, but there is another version that contains an afterword that follows up the stories of each of the people interviewed for the story; the afterword itself is essentially another book on top of the first one.)
 It is worth pointing out that Hersey, as a journalist, had witnessed the atrocities of the Imperial Army in China, so was perhaps not entirely sympathetic to the Japanese.