The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

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Emanations and Disruptions: The Temporality of Aerial Bombing in Slaughter-House Five and Hiroshima

Emanations and Disruptions: The Temporality of Aerial Bombing in Slaughter-House Five and Hiroshima

Annie Yi

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The destructive power and terrifying devastation wrought on civilian populations by the advent of aerial bombing during the Second World War transformed the postwar urban landscape in the 20th Century. In particular, the fallen cities of Dresden and Hiroshima to firebombing and the first atomic bomb, respectively, testified to this nightmarish new experiment in war. The unearthly remains of both space and lives left survivors grasping for a language to make sense of their experiences and, more challengingly, cope with the resulting trauma. However, with clichéd commonplace language doing little except as, in W.G. Sebald’s words, “a gesture to banish memory” and left with, as Kurt Vonnegut’s articulates, “nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” as Kurt Vonnegut puts forth, writers had to find another mode to endow meaning to the events, so they turned to time. In this paper, I argue that the disrupted time scheme in Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five and the rippling temporal emanations in John Hersey’s Hiroshima encompass the exploded aftermath of aerial bombing.

“How can our powers of thought—of language, or of art—cope with the enormities of war, in particular the terrifying force of aerial bombardment?”

 – Ian Patterson, Guernica and Total War

More than any other military innovation, the deadly combination of aircraft and explosive was crucial to the emergence of total war in the 20th century. The sound of motors overhead, strange silhouettes darkening the sky, signaled a new era and a new form of destruction. Besides acting as harbingers of a modern age in its technological novelty, aerial bombing transformed the ways in which combatants prosecute war. War strategy reoriented itself around the possibilities of turning home front into frontlines; no longer would geography and ground formations protect civilian populations. Hence, bombing was transformed from a weapon of physical violence to a weapon of terror.

While aircraft was introduced into warfare during the First World War for battlefield surveillance purposes, the world did not witness aviation’s devastating power until April 1937 at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The blast and incendiary bombs of the German Condor Legion destroyed the ancient Basque town. The terrifying newness of the attack is best encapsulated in George Steer’s famous report for The Times: “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history.” Steer describes the sophisticated tactics of the German bombers that ensured maximum casualties, for “they may be of interest to students of the new military science.” [1]

Aerial bombing was not simply employed for its devastating lethality. Its ability to access civilian populations with unprecedented ease allowed for a new vision of war: that noncombatants and their living space would become equal targets as combatants, making for the totalization of war. Steer’s damning article emphasizes that Guernica had no military objective: “a factory producing armaments lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town.” “The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population,” Steer wrote, rather than any tactical military gains. The employment of area bombing, or aerial bombing over undefended area, instead of precision or tactical bombing, aimed at armies and centers of military production, was imagined to inflict such terrifying destruction as to quickly win and shorten wars.

The successors to Guernica and the interwar period are the charred remains of cities razed during the Second World War. Dresden and Hiroshima in particular were rendered into unearthly, apocalyptic sites, the former by incendiary firebombs that consumed the city’s historic wooden architecture, the latter by the world’s first atomic explosion, and thus seared into modern collective memory by the heat of their incineration. Just like the attack at Guernica, any survivors of the aerial assault on Dresden were then mowed down from overhead by planes with machine guns. Of the strategy, Kurt Vonnegut writes in his post-modernist account of Dresden Slaughterhouse-Five, “Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were. And that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all…The idea was to hasten the end of the war.” [2] [3]

The disorienting experience of encountering lethality in such an alien form makes Patterson’s question of how language and art can cope with the enormity of aerial bombardment essential. What he cannot encompass in literal description, Vonnegut captures in his restructuring of time. The journalistic realism of Hersey’s works prevents him from taking such artistic liberties, but he too provides a penetrating look at the impact of time on memory-work, trauma, and healing.

Place Annihilation: Challenges Facing Depiction

Very little text in Slaughterhouse-Five is devoted to the bombing itself. It happens in a flash, and the ruins are neatly encapsulated into two pages. Vonnegut conveys the otherworldly nature of the site in a concise “it was like the moon” (179). This speaks more about the gracefully curved rocks created by the heat than the actual annihilation of city and people. Dresden achieves none of the mythical, almost science fiction like status of Hersey’s Hiroshima. Soldiers whose eyes had jellied in their sockets, skin peeling off hands like gloves, kimono blossoms burned onto the skin of their wearers, a mysterious illness that kills the seemingly uninjured weeks after the blast; even in the hands of Hersey’s journalistic detachment, Hiroshima appears to be straight out of H.G. Well’s worst nightmares.

But the wastelands created from incendiary bombs in the bombing of German cities are no less horrific than the landscape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after making contact with atomic bombs. Of Hamburg, which plays Nagasaki to Dresden’s Hiroshima, W. E. Sebald describes,

“Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed…after the rubble had cooled down, [people were found] still sitting at tables or up against walls where they had been overcome by monoxide gas. Elsewhere, clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat…that remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.” [4]

The bombs rain in from all directions: heavy high explosive bombs tear apart building frames, light incendiaries set a roof ablaze, midweight firebombs take care of the lower stories. These individual flames then move laterally to merge into monstrous fireballs, sucking in all surrounding oxygen to feed the firestorm, creating hurricane-strength gales as it rolls through the city at one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour.

However, it is difficult to sustain this sense of tragedy, like the children playing in Asano Park not long after the explosion (Hersey 52). So much gore and death creates a psychological closing-off that numbs survivors from their memories. Robert J. Lifton, in his seminal work on the aftermath of Hiroshima, writes, “Human beings are unable to remain open to experience of this intensity of any length of time. Very quickly—sometimes within minutes or even seconds—hibakusha began to undergo a process of ‘psychic closing-off,’ that is, they simply ceased to feel.” [5]

Sebald writes about the clichés employed to describe the devastation wrought by firebombing. “The reality of total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity, pales when described in such stereotypical phrases as ‘prey to the flames,’ ‘that fateful night’…and so on and so forth. Their function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend.” [6] [7]

When the mnemonic powers of space and language are all reduced to rubble, towards what can we turn to access the recollections of such an immense event? Vonnegut and Hersey attempt to use time within narrative as a key.

Dresden and the Temporality of Trauma

In his introduction to the novel, Vonnegut writes in first person about anxiously waiting for his plane to Dresden: “The time would not pass. Somebody was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks but the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on the watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again” (Vonnegut 20). The story’s preoccupation with clocks, from the Englishman who gleefully shows the narrator his souvenir of war, a plaster Eiffel Tower clock (64) and the ghostly light of Billy’s father’s radium watch (90) to Tralfamadorian zoo where the planet’s aliens continually changed the clocks (208) and the mantel clock running on barometric pressure that the POW survivors of Dresden carry out of the ruins (194), figures time, both in its precision and distortion, into a prominent feature of the novel. If seconds can be shortened and elongated, tinkered with and put in flux, they call into question the objectivity of time. Under the laws of Newtonian physics, space and time are represented discretely; the passage of time operating independently from movement through space. However, with the new relativistic context of Einstein’s theory, we have come to learn that space and time are part of the same continuum; time is simply another measure of distance, specifically in the fourth dimension. The speed at which one moves through space dilates or contracts the seconds that the clock ticks off. Unperceivable to our human eyes, it is nonetheless an intrinsic component of the universe’s laws. We should thus come to understand their interaction as part of a locality in the fabric of space-time.

Similarly, psychological interiority has always been portrayed on a discrete and separate plane from events in the physical world. Memories, dreams, and recollections deviate from linear course of action, but it is allowable when it occurs on a separate, non-intersecting plane. Traditional literary depictions are “psychologically rooted in the old Cartesian concept of human consciousness that separates mind and body and keeps interior realities apart from the external, ‘real’ world.” [8] [9]

However, trauma is the real manifestation of not being able to interpolate the past into the temporal order of real life. The past breaks into present consciousness, its unassimilated literalness causes the traumatized to describe their resurfacing memories in the present tense, no matter the event’s distance, spatially or temporally, from the “current” moment in time. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is the image of trauma and its temporal disorder.

Vonnegut opens his protagonist’s story with “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (23). The narrative plays out as such: Billy embarks on his service through the war, and when he loses his division in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, he first comes unstuck (43). As his wartime narrative progresses, from his capture and internment at a German prison camp, to his transfer to a syrup factory in Dresden, the time traveling visits other points in his life, whenever he is particularly distressed. However, Vonnegut roots this fantasy trope in realistic, psychological terms. [10] [11]

Secondly, nearly all of the time traveling, barring the rare instance of back-travel into childhood, takes Billy to moments in his post-war suburban life. If the reader reorders these civilian intrusions into chronological order, the events would start three years after his service overseas, when he suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a mental hospital, where the seeds of time and space travel were planted in his mind by Kilgore Trout’s science fiction novels (pointed out later when he stumbles across the novels again in New York in 1969) (99, 201). This reconstruction of Billy’s life can thus be read as proceeding in consecutive order, from his subsequent marriage to Valencia to his address to a late night radio station about Tralfamadore in the throes of middle age, interrupted by the visceral intrusion of hallucinatory trauma from the war. Thus, readers can take a different view of Billy’s experiences, which “need not be interpreted as experiences of time travel” but rather his inability to “make sense of temporal relations.” [12] [13]

Finally, as the novel approaches the climax of the bombing of Dresden, the temporality inverts, and the narrative is located in the present, with Billy in middle age, and the “flashbacks” are to the bombing and the war, not the other way around. In 1964, at his eighteenth wedding anniversary, we witness the strange associative logic of Billy’s traumatic memory. When a barbershop quartet sings “That Old Gang of Mine” and another song about praying for the sunshine at the anniversary party, the visceral reaction playing grotesquely across his countenance (173, 176) is caused not by the most obvious lyrical parallel, the barbershop quartet singing “Wait till the Sun Shines, Nelly” (156) as his plane went down, or even by the Englishman singing “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here” to welcome the arrival of Americans at the German prison camp (93), but from the facial contortions his fellow American prisoners-of-war made in reaction to seeing burned Dresden (178). When Billy reaches this realization, Vonnegut emphatically points out that Billy does not time travel to the experience, but rather remembers it “shimmeringly” (177). For the first time, Billy’s war experience disrupts the unfolding of his postwar life, rather than the other way around. When he is hospitalized for the injuries sustained by the plane crash five years later, he again finds himself transported to the aftermath of Dresden (194).

Vonnegut not only breaks from the “limited pattern of dramatic development” [14]
“He uses verb tenses, can tell time, and obviously lives in time, but his response to such observations is that time is unreal. This is understandable: it is precisely change, the loss inevitably related to time, that has shaken Billy to the depths of his being. In denying the reality of time, he is trying to find a way to carry on in the face of the incapacitating loss and pain produced by the war.” [15]

By playing with the fluidity of time, Vonnegut shows how permeable the membrane between memory and the present is for those who have seen the sky rain fire and a city transform into the surface of the moon.

Why is Billy so spastic? Because Dresden had no center. Its immolation came from all sides, vertically and horizontally. Whereas the hibakusha of Hiroshima have both a spatial and temporal hypocenter to orient their journeys and memories, the firebombing of Dresden leaves no geographical or temporal edifice to stick to, and so Billy Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck.’ As memory-work takes place, it too needs to situate itself in the mnemonic locations, both in space and in time. Distortions within remembered experiences ripple the fabric of space-time.

Hiroshima and Its Concentric Circles

Because Hiroshima was written as two journalistic pieces for The New Yorker, John Hersey’s prose is much more limited in the creative license it can take with its chronological structure. But what sets Hersey’s account apart from the A-bomb reports that preceded it is that there is little to no description of the atomic blast or the mushroom cloud. Hiroshima is the story of six survivors, from the immediate aftermath of the event to a retracing of the time that has elapsed four decades later. Their stories are mapped out in the same way that the city was now organized in the wake of the atom bomb, with the varying degrees of destruction radiating from the epicenter of the explosion. Yet even as the hibakusha drift away from the blast, putting spatial and temporal distance between themselves and the event, Hiroshima’s hypocenter nonetheless exerts gravity on their lives, holding them close.

Hersey first establishes this organization by introducing a ring of six characters, then outlines what each one was doing until the moment that a noiseless flash stopped all activity. “After the terrible flash,” which, to Father Kleinsorge, seemed like what a large meteor colliding with the world would be like, “he had time (since he was 1400 yards from the center) for one thought…” (11). In Mr. Tanimoto’s case, “a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky…both he and Mr. Matsuo reacted in terror—and both had the time to react (for they were 3500 yards from the center of the explosion” (5). Each of the other four gives nearly identical accounts, pairing the instance of the explosion with an incredibly precise measure. This type of storytelling in relation to the events at Hiroshima is not unusual. Lisa Yoneyama, in Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory, writes:

“Almost without exception, the survivors’ accounts include the distance they were located from the hypocenter, precisely given in meters or kilometers, at the instant of the bomb’s explosion. The witnesses’ memories are mediated by the visual image of a city map on which the by now familiar concentric circles, radiating outward and measuring distance from the hypocenter, have been superimposed.” [16]

No other weapon of mass destruction has such a precise relationship between the distance from its hypocenter and the level of damage accrued. Thus, it is simple to ignore the dozens of other variables that could have changed one’s circumstances in favor of assessing harm absorbed “by the single standard of distance from the hypocenter” [17]

Hersey’s concentric circles then radiate outwards, a circle of lives that unfold in the aftermath. Some of their circles incidentally touch, converge, and intersect, such as when Mr. Tanimoto runs into Father Kleinsorge and asks about his friend Mr. Fukai, or when Kleinsorge pays a hospital visit to Ms. Sasaki and her crippled leg. However, given the intensity of the chaos and destruction seconds after the event, people kept their circles small. Survivors only helped relations or close neighbors because they could not comprehend or “tolerate a wider circle of misery” (29). Moreover, those looking directly into the heart of the destruction, towards the hypocenter, reached their human limits, and their circles collapsed into themselves. Mr. Fukai, the secretary of Father Kleinsorge’s diocese, is found looking out through a second story window “facing in the direction of the explosion” (27). Even as the flames approach, he refuses to leave and resists being taken away, ending his life as a “little broken man” running back into the flames (29).

However as time elapses, the psychological emanations from the hypocenter grow gentler and ever more wide-reaching. In the second half of Hiroshima, Hersey organizes the stories of each of the hibakusha into their own chapters, breaking the temporal circle that bound them together in the same narrative. They have now taken on their own trajectories independent of one another and the ordeal surrounding the bomb’s hypocenter.

Yet even as they drift from Hiroshima, the center of the explosion nearly always exerts a palpable pull. Mr. Tanimoto drifts geographically the farthest, giving speeches in the United States and even delivering the Morning Prayer on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but his work is in the service of the disfigured Hiroshima Maidens. Ms. Sasaki was the bitterest victim from the devastation, having lost her fiancé, her parents, and the utility of one leg. However, she is inspired by the great empathy and endurance of Father Kleinsorge, who comes to visit her even when he is terribly weak and ill (119). Her post-bomb life begins with working at the orphanage in which she puts her siblings so that she can watch over them. Her care for others then expands as she pours her resilience and strength into a larger orphanage; then an old person’s home, where she comforted those on their deathbed so that they could peacefully die; and finally at the head of a convent, where she served as Mother Superior. Sister Sasaki, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her becoming a nun, gives a speech “I shall not dwell on the past. It is as if I had been given a spare life when I survived the A-bomb. But I prefer not to look back. I shall keep moving forward” (126). The explosion changed the course of her life, and yet she would prefer to look away from its epicenter.

Most stunningly, it allows a processing and healing of trauma that transcends the psychological closing-off Lifton described pervading the tragedy. “It appeared that all along there had been, deep in her temperament, a core of cheerfulness,” Hersey writes about Mrs. Nakamura, “which must have fuelled her long fight against A-bomb lassitude, something warmer and more vivifying than mere submission, than saying, ‘Shikata ga-nai’” (97). Shikata ga-nai is a Japanese phrase that approximately translates to “it can’t be helped.” It projects the same attitude that Billy’s Trafalmadorians tout in response to all suffering, war, and death, their resigned “So it goes” that provided the metronomic beat of death to Slaughterhouse-Five.

It seems that the flash has given their lives meaning and purpose, a direction that it would never have taken on before, even as they endeavor to distance themselves from that instance of blinding light. As Billy spasmodically bounces through his life, unstuck from time, the survivors of Hiroshima are, in essence, anchored to the bomb’s hypocenter.


When the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five, presumably Vonnegut himself, visits his friend O’Hare and walks around the city with his two little girls, he asks himself about the present: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep” (18). This is perhaps the central question asked by hibakusha and area bomb survivors as they walk away from the sites of detonation; how much of their present is theirs, and how much of it is lost to the inexorable force of past trauma? Telling their stories are ways of moving forward; Vonnegut emphasizes that once he publishes his story on Dresden, he will not be gazing at the past any longer, for “people aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore” (22).

Dr. Sasaki, whose post-explosion life was dominated for at least a month by the grisly horror-movie nightmare of the invasion of thousands of the bloody and maimed unsteadily stumbling towards the Red Cross Hospital where he worked (15), “paid little or no attention to any” of the scientific discoveries in regards to the health and sickness of hibakusha. Hersey continues, “He did not follow them closely in the medical journals. In his town in the hills, he treated few hibakusha. He lived enclosed in the present tense” (105). All of these bomb-affected survivors overcome the pull that their respective tragedies exert on the trajectory of their lives. As time goes on and those events recede further into the past, the task becomes easier. The last words of Hiroshima observe Father Tanimoto “slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty” (152).  But by bending and reassembling time, it is apparent that none are able to completely look away.

Annie Yi is a junior at Yale studying history. She is interested in narratives of war in the 20th century, with particular emphasis on memory and trauma. Her writings mostly focus on the literary and visual cultures of war, specifically in how various texts and images represent phenomena such as the interrupted temporality of trauma, the inscription of memories of violence in the body, and the schism of national and personal identities in civil conflicts. A California native, she misses sunshine and organic produce dearly, especially this spring as she studies abroad at Oxford.

[1][back] George Steer, “The Tragedy of Guernica,” The Times, April 27 1937.

[2][back] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Dell Publishing, 1969) 180.

[3][back] John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946) 137. Hereafter, all references to Hersey and Hiroshima  will refer to this edition and will be cited in-text.

[4][back] W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (Westminster, MD: Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group, 2004) 28.

[5][back] Robert J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (New York: Random House, 1968) 31.

[6][back] Sebald 25.

[7][back] Ibid.

[8][back] Lee Atwell, “Two Studies in Space Time,” Film Quarterly 26.2 (Winter, 1972-1973) 2.

[9][back] Atwell 2.

[10][back] Edelstein 129.

[11][back]Edelstein 129.

[12][back] Martin Coleman, “The Meaninglessness of Coming Unstuck in Time,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 44.4 (2008) 685.

[13][back] Arnold Edelstein, “‘Slaughterhouse-Five’: Time out of joint,” College Literature 1.2 (1974) 132.

[14][back] Atwell 2.

[15][back] Coleman 688.

[16][back] Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectic of Memory  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 113.

[17][back] Yoneyama 94.

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