Hiding Hiroshima

A victim of Hiroshima (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I remember the first time I saw a photo of a survivor of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. I was young, and I stared at that picture of a person's melting skin and felt like it was something I could get into trouble for looking at. It was a powerful moment in my American history education. That came back to me vividly today when I read a piece in the Huffington Post by Greg Mitchell.

When the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it's estimated that more than 200,000 people died, although there's no way of knowing an exact number. The people who survived suffered from radiation sickness and other trauma. And because we didn't know how radiation could stick around and poison your very cells, American soldiers were still occupying Hiroshima and Nagasaki without any sort of protection.

After the second bomb dropped, a Japanese company sent a film crew to document what was happening in the cities - the leveled ground, the dying. They were the only ones filming. If you were an American, you hadn't seen a thing but a mushroom cloud. The news told you that we'd bombed the Japanese, and why we did it - ostensibly, to end the war.

But the U.S. military stepped in and banned the filming, taking what the Japanese had already recorded. Later, the military selected one of its own to head up a camera crew, Lt. Daniel McGovern, and document this campaign in Japan. They recorded every horror they saw.

What happened to that film, the footage we'd sent soldiers and civilians in to radiation-blasted cities to capture? The government suppressed every bit of film that documented the effects of the bombings and attempted to do the same with photographs. The Japanese film disappeared for more than 20 years. The footage McGovern's crews recorded vanished for more than 30. We labeled it secret and hid it away.

It's easy enough to come up with reasons why the government would have wanted to suppress the films -- if people saw the sort of devastation atomic bombs could cause, they might not be so quick to support the use of nuclear weapons.

Such well-kept government secrets only reinforce the importance of journalism, even in the age of user-generated content. And we can thank people like McGovern and his crew and the Japanese newsreel team for their bravery.

Today, we have a parallel, of course. How many photos have you seen of dead soldiers in Afghanistan? How many photos of soldiers' coffins?

The argument for suppressing the photos is that it's unpatriotic to publish them and pushes a pacifist agenda. It can also be incredibly painful for families to see their dead loved ones in the news.

The argument against is that unless we see what we're sacrificing, we don't understand the cost of what we're engaged in, or the courage it takes to get it done.

What do you think?

More on nuclear science and history:

What would nuclear winter be like? How the Manhattan Project Worked The Top 10 Game-changing Military Technologies

Thanks to Rob Sheppe for the link.