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Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker

2 December 2007

Occasionally, I do try to post reviews of books that I didn’t really care for. This book happens to be one of them.

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima is a historical account of the events leading up to the dropping of the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, often told in the words of the participants. Walker tells the story in a vaguely narrative form, fleshing out the identities and characters of the scientists and military experts who worked on the bomb, the crew who flew the actual mission, and assorted Japanese civilians and military personnel whose stories illustrate what life was like in Hiroshima shortly before the city was levelled.

I spent a little too much time on my postgraduate work delving into the historiography and vast amount of literature on the end of World War II to make a book on Hiroshima my first choice of reading material. But the book looked interesting enough, and so I started reading through it to see if there was anything new or interesting that Walker mentioned that I might be able to pick up from the text. I was going along quite fine, until I reached the following passage:

Of course, the decision was always inevitable. So inevitable, perhaps, that it could hardly be called a decision. There were so many urgent reasons to drop the bomb. Together they made an irresistible cocktail. It would have been far more remarkable had it not been dropped.

Setting aside the idea of an ‘irresistible cocktail’ of reasons, this passage made me stop and stare. I may or may not have mentioned this in previous book reviews, but I’ll say it now: there is nothing that kills my interest in a history book faster than the author’s use of the word ‘inevitable’ in the context of crisis decision-making. I hate the use of the word ‘inevitable’ by historians because it is beyond sloppy, the equivalent in my mind of a vague handwave accompanied by an ‘enh’ sound. And to see ‘inevitable’ placed in the context of Hiroshima and the dropping of the atomic bomb…I will admit that I actually had to close the book and walk away from it in order to calm myself down. A visceral reaction, to be sure — almost certainly influenced by the fact that I’ve visited Hiroshima and seen the results of the bombing — but that one word infuriated me precisely that much.

There isn’t much more I have to say about the book after that. A little outside research would have me point to Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Shuntaro Hida’s The Day Hiroshima Disappeared as better alternatives to Walker’s book. Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima has its good points and interesting sections…but this is a subject that in my opinion deserves rather more thought and attention than Walker has given it.

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