On a clear day, history was created

A little over 69 years ago, on a clear day, history was created. On that day, 6 August 1945, at 8:15 a.m., an atom bomb was dropped on a city called Hiroshima in Japan, killing more than 150,000 people – half of them on that day itself. All civilians. Thousands more died from injuries and radiation illnesses over the years. There is photographic evidence to show that several clocks in Hiroshima had stopped at 8:15 a.m. – presumably when the bomb was activated on ground.

The next day, US military officials had confirmed publicly that Hiroshima was devastated: at least 60% of the city was wiped off the map. An eyewitness account on Tokyo Radio had described the victim’s bodies as bloated and scorched, burned with huge blisters.

At least four Japanese cities were targeted by the United States: Kokura, Niigata, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The one chosen as target – ‘bomb primary’ – depended on weather conditions, as the pilot on the plane carrying the bomb needed clear visibility to drop its load. As Hiroshima was experiencing clear sunshine that morning, the luck of the draw went against its people. And, history was created.

On hearing the news of the attack on Hiroshima, US President Harry S Truman, returning home from Europe on board USS Augusta, had apparently announced that, “The experiment was an overwhelming success.” It is rumoured that President Truman had also said, “It is the greatest thing in history!” But this comment seems to have been deleted from most US records.

Japan had challenged that the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima was inhuman, an atrocity, a crime against God and man, a violation of international law, specifically Article 22 of the Hague Convention which outlawed attacks on defenseless civilians. President Truman, of course, defended himself, announcing on national radio that the bomb had been dropped on a “military base, not a large city.”

And then, on 9 August 1945, at 11:02 a.m., the United States dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000 people – with, possibly, an equal number succumbing to injuries from “blistering blast winds, heat rays and radiation” over the years. On 9 August 1945, Nagasaki, too, was experiencing a clear day with sunshine and, therefore, became ‘bomb primary’ (apparently, Kokura was primary target, but a moderate cloud had covered and obscured the city).

[Citation: 63 Years Ago: Media Distortions Set Tone for Nuclear Age by Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, 6 August 2008; and various sources from the internet.]

The Hinge Factor

We’ve grown up reading about wars in history books, with narratives of how great kings and great generals have been responsible for victories against all odds. We’ve read tales about their conquests, their courage and their heroism. We’ve accepted their courage, their commitment, their skill, their strategic decision-making capabilities and their leadership as the realities of battles they’ve fought and won. We’ve taken these factors for granted.

But, what really decides the outcome of a battle? What decides the fate and lives of thousands – sometimes millions – of people in a battle, during war, or even after?

In his book, The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, Erik Durschmied presents an antithesis to the factors we often take for granted: that men with brilliance and courage and determination and leadership win battles. He suggests that, often, it is the unexpected and the unpredictable and the absurd in a battle that swings victory in favour of the opposition – changing the outcome of events and the course of history.

Durschmied suggests that the outcome of a battle and the fate of millions of people are not always determined by great men and their heroic qualities (as we tend to read in history books and believe), but more often, by improbable and unexpected happenings. In the prologue of The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, he writes:

“Some chroniclers wish us to believe that battles are won by valor and the brilliance of war lords, on whom they bestow the accolade of ‘genius’ when they are triumphant. They record the victor as being brilliant and the loser as not. And yet, there is no secret formula to the victorious outcome of a battle – except that much depends on who commits the bigger blunder. Or, to put no finger point on it, many battles have been decided by the caprice of weather, bad (or good) intelligence, unexpected heroism or individual incompetence – in other words, the unpredictable. In military terms, this phenomenon is known as: The Hinge Factor.”

Changing the course of history – by chance

If nothing else, history has been, and still is, about change. However, not all changes in history have been brought on by people – from their desires and their deeds. Much of it has happened by ‘existence’. Some of it has been accidental. Some of it has happened due to a combination of factors which were outside human control.

In his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, semiotics professor and author Umberto Eco mentions an instance in history when history has not been entirely in human control – that of Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas – in the chapter ‘The Force of Falsity’ from which I quote here:

“And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right – thanks to serendipity.”

Image courtesy content.time.com

Image courtesy content.time.com

This fact, that Columbus discovered the Americas by chance, is not an isolated example but seems to be a common occurrence in history.

For instance, the Stone Age cave paintings in Altamira, Northern Spain – one of the greatest historical discoveries – were found accidentally when, in 1879, a 9-year-old girl crawled into a cave while exploring her father’s estate. The Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, Southern France, were found in 1940 by a teenager (and his friends) when he followed his dog into the cave.

Similar examples of chance discoveries are quoted by war journalist and author Erik Durschmied in his 1999 book The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Has Changed History, and by British mathematics professor Jacob Bronowski in his famous 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man, which was later published as a book in 1974. They make interesting reading (or viewing), for both academics and laymen, about how history is shaped through the years.

If we are to believe great scholars like Eco, Durschmied and Bronowski, be it exploring the new world or war upon nations or man’s scientific and technological achievements, much of the course of history may have changed simply by chance, and not because of great strategies by powerful and ambitious men.

Times LitFest Mumbai 2014: Burnt Norton

On the last day (7 Dec) of the Times LitFest 2014, author Caroline Sandon (pictured below) presented the history behind her new novel ‘Burnt Norton’ which is based upon an 18th century (burnt down) mansion in the UK. The mansion, called Burnt Norton, is where Caroline Sandon now lives with her family.

Caroline Sandon

Caroline Sandon

Esther Freud (pictured below), author of books such as ‘Hideous Kinky’ and ‘Mr Mac and Me’, read the poem ‘Burnt Norton’ by T S Eliot from Eliot’s collection titled ‘Four Quartets’. Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ was inspired by his visit to the place/mansion ‘Burnt Norton’.

Esther Freud

Esther Freud

The book ‘Burnt Norton’ by Caroline Sandon:

Burnt Norton

Times LitFest Mumbai 7 Dec 2014

Several more photos of authors I met at the Times LitFest 2014 held in Mumbai:

Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma

Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob

Deepti Kapoor

Deepti Kapoor

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple

Namita Devidayal

Namita Devidayal

Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai

Chef Vikas Khanna

Chef Vikas Khanna

Caroline Sandon

Caroline Sandon

Ashwin Sanghi, Samhita Arni, Amish Tripathi

Ashwin Sanghi, Samhita Arni, Amish Tripathi

Manu Joseph, Akhil Sharma, Mira Jacob, Deepti Kapoor

Manu Joseph, Akhil Sharma, Mira Jacob, Deepti Kapoor

Aneesh Pradhan, Namita Devidayal, Jawhar Sircar, Shashi Vyas

Aneesh Pradhan, Namita Devidayal, Jawhar Sircar, Shashi Vyas