Two and a half weeks ago, I took this picture, not remembering the anniversary that was coming up. This is bomb loading pit #1 at the north airfield on Tinian – where Little Boy was loaded onto the Enola Gay for her flight to Hiroshima, 70 years ago today.
To visit this site is simultaneously somber, and peaceful, and uplifting. Somber, because you are standing at the physical point of full handoff, where the physics team put the device in the hands of the bombing team that would take it to its final destination. If, like me, you came up as a physicist, living in the complex shadow of the Manhattan Project – where many of the modern ways of doing science took shape, but also where physics first drank full deep from the chalice of human life and death – you might also have dreamed of coming to this place, imagined it and wondered about it all your life.
Peaceful, because it is hard to describe the quiet there. The glass shell you see over the bomb pit – broken, I might add, for several years – is the only concession the entire site makes to preservation or to making a "monument." The north airfield isn't treated with the reverence of a historical site; it's an abandoned airfield, and you can simply drive onto it, and if your suspension is good enough and you have an adequate machete you can explore any parts of it you want. Tinian is a quiet and very beautiful place.
Uplifting, for two reasons. First, because the place itself is so beautiful, as are the people who live there. Tinian is about the size and shape of Manhattan, but with only about 5,000 inhabitants, almost entirely locals, who have a deep attachment to making their island as good a home as they can. And second, because of the strange way in which the memory of war passes, both here and throughout the Northern Mariana Islands. On Saipan (just a short hop north), there are numerous monuments to the tremendously bloody battles and atrocities which happened there during the war; but the gun emplacements which were abandoned in place have long since rusted.
In Israel, where I come from, there are many places where gun emplacements have been abandoned. There's a good little café called Coffee Annan up on the Syrian border, built atop an old bunker. There, you know that someone has taken a careful survey of all of these sites, and knows to the hour how long it would take to bring them back up to operation. On Saipan, the guns and the bunkers had passed the point of no return more than a generation ago; the war was gradually fading into the past, consumed by the relentless advance of the Boonies.
You can see below a photograph of a Japanese tank on one of Saipan's northern beaches. A papaya tree has started growing in its engine compartment.
So today, on this somber anniversary, I think back to the ways in which things have changed. We somehow survived the rest of the 20th Century without another world war, and without the annihilation of a large percentage of humanity. We've entered a new world beyond the Cold War, now, one with new threats and opportunities. The calamity which threatens us most directly – the one most likely to destroy civilization – is now not a war, but shifting climates, the collapse of water supplies and ecosystems. Old memories are fading (I used the word "Kremlinology" in a work e-mail just a week ago, before realizing that many of my colleagues are too young to remember what it means), even as old threats all too often remain real. (Is our culture of racial violence that different than it was 150 years ago?)
I don't have any clear lessons to offer today, 70 years after the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. The changes in the world between then and now are too complex for any short answer.
But I think about the tank, and the papaya tree, and I have some hope.