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Taken in March 1946, a photograph shows the destruction in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb (US Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear War is a Melted Wristwatch

Can the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be “truly” represented?

Words: Emily Faux
Pictures: US Department of Defense
Date:

One of the most famous representations of nuclear war remains John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” a 1946 New Yorker article turned best-selling book that chronicles the stories of six survivors. In response to the article, Mary McCarthy commented, “To have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead.” Her comment forces us to confront the very possibility of ever representing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The dilemma is stark: if no representation is possible after nuclear war, there remains nonetheless a duty to speak. To speak so as to bear witness. But how? How can testimony escape the idyllic law of the story?

Can Hiroshima and Nagasaki be “truly” represented? How do we bear witness to such an event? What does this look like? Does it need to be heard, watched, or read? Does it require facts and figures? Testimonies or eye-witness accounts? Photographs or relics? Is a death toll a more “truthful” representation than a child’s drawing? Do the logbooks from Enola Gay hold more “truth” than a melted wristwatch? 

Both artifacts have recently been sold at auction. 

Enola Gay was the name given to the US B-29 Bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing up to 146,000 people, on Aug. 6, 1945. The plane was named after the pilot’s mum. Bidding started at $400,000 for the in-flight documentation made by Enola Gay’s co-pilot, Captain Robert A. Lewis at the request of journalist William Laurence of The New York Times. Heritage Auctions sold the logbook in 2022 — it was valued at $543,000

“Immense in Significance” 

Although easily assumed junk, the second artifact — a melted wristwatch — was described as “immense in significance […] a historic artifact that is among the more evocative objects to exist.” The watch hands read 8:15 AM, the time when Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb. The melted watch is believed to have been “recovered” by a British soldier from Ground Zero, Hiroshima. It was sold by RR Auction in 2024, valued at $31,113. 

While the auctioning of the logbook sparked little controversy, the private profiteering from a watch stolen from a victim of a war crime sparked outrage in response. Despite many calls for the watch to be displayed in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, it fell into the hands of the highest bidder (who wished to remain anonymous). 

Do the logbooks from Enola Gay hold more ‘truth’ than a melted wristwatch? 

Both those who called for the watch to be memorialized and those who saw “value” in its melted face and clouded crystal resonated with the same thing: the story the watch told. 

While the story told by an in-flight logbook is textual, pragmatic, and factual, the story the watch told is emotive, affective, and unknown. The auction house tells a story of an artifact “frozen at the moment of detonation” and media headlines report that it is “frozen in time.” Language such as “broken” or “destroyed” would carry less sentiment.

That time can stop, the world can stand still, and a moment can freeze are all metaphorical expressions of a perception, an embodied feeling, that we experience when we encounter something that evokes a sense of revelation. 

“The End of Everything”

Where the logbook can help us to know more, the watch leaves us wondering about what can never be known. Without words, the watch can tell a thousand stories — none truer than another. Perhaps our own imagination and contemplation can more truthfully represent nuclear war than facts and figures. 

More than six decades ago, philosopher Gunther Anders worried that our nuclear capabilities had surpassed our capacity to imagine the potential catastrophe — producing an effect he described as a “not-imagined nothingness.” 

An image depicts another watch that stopped at the exact time the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (Maarten Heerlien via Wikimedia Commons)
An image depicts another watch that stopped at the exact time the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (Maarten Heerlien via Wikimedia Commons)

Since imagining nuclear war surpasses our natural power of imagination, we can only comprehend it through comparisons and relativity. “The death of one child would upset you [but] the end of everything could be contemplated only abstractly as if from a great distance”, Spencer R. Weart wrote in “The Rise of Nuclear Fear.”

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, there has been widespread blindness in the face of the apocalypse. It is easy to ignore the possibility of nuclear annihilation even while we all live with the daily possibility of nuclear annihilation. We can produce the end of the world, but we struggle to imagine it. 

We face a problem that requires translating knowledge to belief; there is a reaffirmed consensus among nuclear powers that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” language Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first articulated in 1985, and that any nuclear exchange would cause catastrophic harm to both sides. The risk is known, but translating this knowledge into visceral belief is challenging. 

“Imagination Falls Short”

As long as nuclear weapons exist, the truth remains that imagination falls short. However, even in philosophizing the impossibility of mentally realizing this reality, Anders called for continual efforts to do so. Like the melted wristwatch, any attempt to visualize ‘nothingness’ will be incomplete. Knowing this, Anders concluded that “the attempt, at least, must be made to visualize this nothingness.” 

We turn to stories because we must. Not because of what they represent, but because of the effects they produce in the reader or listener — because of their ability to translate knowledge into a visceral, embodied, and emotive belief. 

An all-out nuclear war (though possible now) exists only in a hypothetical future: in the realm of the speculative and imaginary. Until nuclear apocalypse becomes a reality, representing nuclear war will always be an act of remembrance and of imagination. By way of narrative, fictionality, and the imagination, storytelling cannot only highlight the threats of nuclear weapons and war — it can also serve to visualize a future without nuclear weapons and war.

Emily Faux

Emily is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, UK. Her thesis investigates representations of nuclear weapons/war and fictional narrative. She is interested in the power of storytelling and imagination in visualizing a world free of nuclear weapons. Emily also teaches Visual Communication and Communication Research Methods at the University of Leeds, UK.

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