December 7th, 1941. A day, said then-president of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, that will live in infamy.
All my life growing up, however, it was August 6th, 1945 that was the infamous day. We’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people in a single day in warfare before, but rarely was it mostly civilians. Exact numbers will never be known, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki rank up near the top. The firebombing of Dresden in Germany was also horrific. But it wasn’t nuclear.
Mankind has been inventing new ways to slaughter each other since we first started sharpening sticks, and it shows little sign of stopping. So far, nuclear weapons are the worst we’ve come up with, and the horror that emerged from Japan at the end of World War II is, in my opinion, the most gruesome and horrific ever. Part of it was the suddenness of the attack – people vaporized in mid-stride – and part of it was the unseen killer; radiation. Something about that combination has terrorized me all my life.
As an adult now, I have little fear of death. But if I could only take you back to my bedroom in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s when I obsessed over the thousands of Soviet warheads pointed at America and her allied nations, you might understand the terror I lived with every day. And, of course, I was hardly alone in that terror. My entire generation can remember the fear – a fear my children have never had. Sure a nuclear war could still happen, but the odds have dropped majestically in the last 22 years.
I was 12 when I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima – a chilling, terrible account of the bombing and the immediate aftermath – and I realized then in 1981 that we were all living in Hiroshima. Everyone, everywhere could expect nuclear horror to rain out of the skies at any second, with little or no warning. To this day I wonder why I wasn’t damaged more by that weight on my young shoulders. And I don’t wonder why I learned to escape into fiction.
Gandalf and Aslan and Arthur Dent and similar characters were my protectors in those days, and I’ve never stopped being thankful. Not only did they protect me from the nuclear bombs I so feared, but they taught me how to tell a story, and how to appreciate one.
And yet those weapons aren’t gone. There are fewer now than there were, but there are still far too many, and not all of them are accounted for. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran wants them. Plus Pakistan and India – rivals for decades – both have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. And yet, there hasn’t been another nuclear attack anywhere in 68 years. That’s encouraging.
Since 9/11 the fear has shifted. Now, it’s not nuclear weapons from the sky we fear, but nuclear weapons carried into cities by un-hinged terrorists (religious or otherwise) who see slaughtering hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as simply a means to an end. Can you even wrap your mind around that? You and I, we worry about buying healthy food and paying our bills and getting ourselves – and perhaps the kids – to appointments. But at this moment there are men – mostly – searching for a way to slaughter innocent people just to prove a point.
And what do we do about it? Well, if you’re like me, you talk about it. And you make what changes you can. I don’t know what drives people to extremism, but I can imagine ideology can do it, and so can hunger or resentment. I try to imagine what would drive me to do such things. And then I try to change any actions of mine that might contribute to those modifying conditions. I try to make people aware of the dangers of extremist ideology, and the dangers to our food supply. And I refuse to buy into the “American dream” that means always buying new stuff. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying. And it’s baby steps, sure, but if we all made a few baby steps, that’d be an awful lot of babies moving in the same direction. That would be something!
And also I write. I remember how J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and Douglas Adams helped me, sheltered me, and fanned the flames of my hope and creativity. So I’ll try with my writing to do the same thing for others which they did for me. I’ll try to tell stories that make people think, and make people hope for something better. I’ll try, and I’ll keep trying, because this is what I was born to do.
There is a staggering amount of darkness around us. It bathes us in fear and blinds us to what’s really before us. But darkness can be dispelled by light, so I’m taking my lantern out from under the bushel and placing it up on a pedestal for all to see. I don’t know how much light I will actually be able to shed, what changes I might be able to cause, but for the sake of more than 200,000 people who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and for the future of any single person who might pick up a story of mine and feel just a little better afterwards – I’ll write.
To quote one of my favorite proverbs of all, from Africa, ‘If you cannot be a lighthouse, be a candle.’