After a lifetime of obsession with nuclear weapons, I didn’t think I could learn much more about such pivotal events as the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place 70 years ago this week. But historian Alex Wellerstein, who became my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology last year, has a knack for knocking the dust off nuclear history so I can see it afresh.

I’ve cited him in several recent columns (see Further Reading), and now I’m going to cite him again. In June, when I mentioned I was writing about claims that the effects of nuclear weapons have been exaggerated, he steered me to his 2013 blog post “Hiroshima and Nagasaki in color,” a meditation on post-bombing photographs.

Some iconic black and white photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wellerstein notes, show the cities after bodies and rubble have been cleared and make them look like “abandoned cities on the moon.” He displays color photos that depict a messier reality. I urge you to check out his illustrated column, but here is the coda, which makes a point worth pondering on this somber anniversary. Bold type is in the original:

There are two ways you can go wrong in making sense of the scale of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first is to see the bombs as instant vaporizers, to see the bombs as Everything Killers that just zap cities out of existence. This isn’t the case. They kill by crushing and burning and irradiating. They don’t turn you to dust.  They don’t freeze you and turn you into a stop-motion skeleton, like in The Day AfterFor some, death was instantaneous, but for a lot of others, it was a much more protracted affair.

The other way to misunderstand it is to downplay it. Ah, a number of large buildings survived! It’s not so bad, then, right? Maybe the whole nuke thing has been exaggerated! Well, unless you are, you know, not in one of those buildings, and even if you are, it’s a pretty awful thing. Yes, you can approximate the city-wide effects of early atomic bombs with a fleet of conventional bombers dropping napalm — which personally I consider just as much a weapon of mass destruction as anything else... But being napalmed is not exactly a walk in the park for those being bombed, either.

So what’s the right view? An ugly, troublesome, disturbing one; right between those extremes. The atomic bomb was a weapon used to inflict tremendous human suffering. (This is true whether you think its use was justified or not.) If an atomic bomb were to go off over your city, the damage would be horrifying, the death toll staggering. But it’s a level of destruction that people should try to appreciate for what it is — a realistic possibility, not a clean science-fiction ending or a blow to be shrugged off. 

A final point. As Wellerstein would be the first to acknowledge, the photos he displays do not really capture the ugliness of the atomic bombings, because they do not show the victims, dead and alive. You can find photographs of horribly disfigured casualties online. But the best way to appreciate the suffering caused by the atomic bombs is to read John Hersey’s classic work of journalism Hiroshima, published in 1946.

Toward the end of the book, Hersey quotes a Catholic priest raising questions that remain unanswered: “Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”

Further Reading:

Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings Speak Out on the 70th Anniversary of the Detonations.

Bethe, Teller, Trinity and the End of the Earth.

The Risks of Nuclear Weapons: An Exchange.

Are We Too Afraid of Nuclear Weapons?

We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable.

Leader of Venerable Scientific Watchdog Group Renews Focus on “Nuclear Dangers.”

Atomic Reporters Curb “Egregious” Coverage of Nuclear Perils.