[Belated Thoughts on the 60th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki]

[Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005  The portion of this post appearing below in boldface has been revised.  Please see endnote for details.]

There’s a couple of reasons why I’m a theoretical physicist.  For tonight, the pertinent one is this:  I can feel numbers.  To me, they’re not symbols long since divorced from the consequences they were meant to quantify.  Instead, in my imagination, their consequences are palpable, sometimes vividly so.   Thus, while I can intellectually understand the truth behind those now immortal cynical sayings of good ol’ Senator Dirksen ("A million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.") and mean ol’ General Secretary Stalin ("The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic."), I don’t personally feel their truth.    Rather, I personally feel a million dollars as the accumulation of a lifetime or two of paychecks, and a million deaths as an utterly satisfactory reason to emulate Job and blaspheme God to His Face should He ever take the time out of His very, very busy eternity to grant me the ultimate honor of some individualized revelation. 

Now, as you can see from the above examples, my natural knack for internalizing numerical knowledge doesn’t so much have to do with any mathematical facility per se, but rather an ability to imagine something personally poignant in place of the numbers.  And so, gentle reader, if in recent days you have pondered the morality of dropping atomic weapons on Japan and have found yourself confounded by all the cold counteractuals it entails, and if–more importantly–you’re now willing to partake in some moderate emotional masochism, then let me commend to you the following excerpt of Errol Morris’s stunning 2003 documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.  Better than anything I’ve ever seen, it conveys the brutal emotional truth behind the cold, hard statistic that in the five months leading up to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US firebombing campaigns on 67 Japanese cities directly killed at least 175,000 civilians and burnt to the ground the homes of at least 8,000,000.

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