Pandaemonium

AS IF STILL BURNING

hiroshima before    hiroshima after

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Today marks  the anniversary of an even more grotesque event – the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. These remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.

Some 12 km² of Hiroshima were destroyed, as were around 69% of the city’s buildings. The images above, which were taken by the US military on the day, show Hiroshima before and after the bombing. Some 66,000 people are thought to have died in Hiroshima on the day; probably a similar number again died over the next four months as a result of their injuries or from radiation sickness. So fierce was the heat that people were vaporised but their shadows left upon the walls.

In the years since the dropping of the bombs, there has developed  a revisionist history claiming that the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to bring about a swift end to the war. That was not how US military leaders saw it at the time. Dwight D Eisenhower, then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, opposed the bombings on ‘two counts’: ‘First the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.’ According to the official US Strategic Bombing Survey ‘Japan would have surrendered if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated’.

Yasuhiko Shigemoto is a hibakusha, a survivor of the attack. He is also a poet. Almost all his work takes as its starting point that terrible day in August 1945. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, I interviewed Yasuhiko Shigemoto for the Independent. I am republishing here a slightly edited version of that interview, interwoven with Shigemoto’s haiku.


hiroshima 1

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Swallows
coming again and flying
not forgetting Hiroshima

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The poetry of Yasuhiko Shigemoto is blessed with a wonderful lightness and delicacy of touch. Yet it tells also of a darkness and a terror that few of us can comprehend. Shigemoto is a hibakusha, a survivor of the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. All his poetry is an exploration of that singular event.

Shigemoto was 14 when the bomb fell. Like many other survivors, he can recall with startling clarity the exact moment it happened. ‘I was standing under a bridge over the Yamate river. I was just taking off my undershirt, to get into my working clothes. Half of my belly was exposed. Suddenly I saw a flash to the south and I felt a violent heat. My belly was covered in blisters. I was blown down by the blast. When I raised my head, all I could see was bicycles scattered around me.’

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The sunset glow ―
Hiroshima
as if still burning

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Shigemoto was lucky. Hiroshima schoolchildren had been divided into work details to help preparations for a possible Allied invasion. One group was demolishing houses in the city centre to create firebreaks in case of incendiary bomb attacks. All were killed in the A-bomb blast. Shigemoto was in the second group, working in the hills at the edge of the city, digging underground caverns to relocate Hiroshima’s factories. ‘I suppose I am fortunate to have been where I was that day’, he says. ‘But sometimes I ask myself why I am still living 50 years later, when my friends have died. I still see them in my dreams.’

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Still being alive
seems to be a sin for me
Hiroshima Day

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hiroshima shadows

Within an hour of the explosion there was what Shigemoto calls ‘a procession of ghosts’ as many grievously injured people started appearing from the city centre. ‘Their skin was hanging off their bodies like tissue paper. But most horrible was the way they walked, so slowly and with their arms stretched out so that their skin would not stick together, walking with no purpose and with nowhere to go.’ The bodies of the injured piled up everywhere. ‘They were crawling with maggots’, Shigemoto remembers. ‘The flies laid their eggs in the living bodies.’

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The person’s shadow
still on the stone stair
Hiroshima Day

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Five days after the blast he finally walked back into the city centre with a friend. ‘We walked along the river and all we could see were dead bodies, countless dead bodies on the river banks and floating in the river. The fish were still swimming but the people were dead.’ Hiroshima was famous for its clear water, so clear that the best sake in Japan was said to come from the city. The contrast between the purity of the water and the stench of death is a motif that still haunts his poetry.

Post-war Japan, says Shigemoto, was a world of crime, disorder and anarchy. Encouraged by his father, he eventually resumed his schoolwork, went on to study languages at university and became an English teacher. ‘My father had been very critical of the military government during the war. He told me to learn English, which had been banned by the authorities because it was the language of the enemy, so I would know better what was going on in the world.’

How they could bear witness  to such unspeakable horror – if they could,indeed, if they should – became a central concern of twentieth century artists and writers and poets. ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz’, Theodor Adorno wrote. But for many others it was only through poetry that one was able to make sense of tragedy that seemed beyond the ken of reason.

Writing, for Shigemoto, became a means of coming to terms with his experience. ‘Writing is a kind of healing’, he says. Eventually he came to write poetry, in haiku.

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A winter crow
caws and leaves
the A-bomb Dome

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Haiku is a traditional Japanese form, usually in three parts and with 17 syllables. Its power and beauty arises from the evocation in each brief verse of a single riveting image. In the 1980s, the British poet James Kirkup came across Shigemoto’s work and encouraged him to publish it. The result is his book, My Haiku of Hiroshima. The images here are angry and sorrowful, sometimes even humorous, but always moving.

Shigemoto fears that, 50 years on, the memories, and with them the lessons, of Hiroshima are fading. ‘Even in Japan’, he says, ‘many people do not understand about Hiroshima. There is much prosperity in Japan today but many people have forgotten the past. It is important never to forget the past, so we can build the future differently.’

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Children –
floating lit paper lanterns
not knowing Hiroshima

67 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Asia Reviewer Maniac and commented:
    A very moving post about possibly one of the most tragic events that has ever happened in our history during the 20th century. Still to this day, the dropping of the Atomic Bomb over Hiroshima still affects thousands of people each year, and will continue to affect them for generations to come. Do check it out, and I pay my respects to the victims who have been affected by this incident. You will always remain in our thoughts.

  2. girlforgetful

    Reblogged this on girlforgetful and commented:
    I was unaware that today is the anniversary of Hiroshima. I don’t even have to mention what happened that day; it’s expressed in one word. As memories fade with time, let’s hope this one remains vivid enough to prevent it happening again.

  3. Wonderful post. I was blessed to visit Hiroshima a couple of months ago (and indeed it is worthy of a blog in the near future). Last week I then visited Pearl Harbor to see the other side of the coin. Both touching places where one can’t help but reflect, moan, pay respects and question.

    One thing I did take particular note on at Hiroshima, there’s a sense that they are not dwelling on the past. They are not continuing to question, to blame or to victimise the people of that place. Rather, they use the place to try and change the future. We can not go back and change those two tragic wars, but maybe, through study, reflection and cooperation we can ensure that no such atrocity ever happens again.

    The final room of the museum at Hiroshima is dedicated to the letters written each year on the anniversary of that tragic day to all nations who still hold nuclear weapons to request that these be safely destroyed. For me that is the most powerful thing, forget blame and use a tragic event to shape a more positive future.

  4. I went on a special study abroad course to learn about WWII back in May. Although we stuck to learning about Europe, we delved a fair bit in the Pacific Theater. You’re right, the A-bomb was unnecessary. It was very unlikely that the Japanese would’ve fought to the last man, woman, and child like the top military officials wanted, and they were low on resources and weapons while the Americans kept coming. Yet used it was, not understanding the effects it would have and how the whole world since has been affected by the bombs.

    Thank you for this timely reminder.

    • Don’t let that the hate wins. You can not find happiness or revenge in the suffering of human beings, or to think that humanness is limited to certain countries. You lose your own humanness doing that, I know it because that happened to me because a bad government to justify our poverty taught us to hate our neighbors, but the truth is that every man is capable of terrible things and beautiful things, even in China.
      This tragedy deserves our memory, it was a bomb against the world and we have the responsibility to care that it mustn’t to happen again.

  5. Reblogged this on emzemz222's Blog and commented:
    So powerful and very sad article. It is a proof that there’s nothing you can get from war. Just a thousands or hundreds of thounsands of people suffering and dying.

  6. It is hard to believe that it happened almost 70 years ago. I was watching TV here in Japan about bombing on Hiroshima , and they had interviews with those who survived through this catastrophe. They seem like they still live back in those days and can’t forget about it, which is totally understandable. The number of the survivors are decreasing day by day, and one of interviewees says that if they have less survivors than now, it would be hard to tell the story about the war and bombing-Hiroshima and Nagasaki ,to the next generations.
    Thank you for writing this article, this will definitely reminds ten of thousand of people around the world especially Japanese people, of what happened back in time.

  7. Wonderful post! I read Hershey’s Hiroshima many years ago, but the imagery of that day stays in my mind. In my history courses in college, we learned the truth about the “dropping of the bombs” and the belief that this needed to happen to end the war is entirely false. FDR flatly refused to use the atomic bomb because of its power. When I see people walking around with those t-shirts that show a mushroom cloud with the words “made in America/tested in Japan,” I feel sick. People can be so ignorant. This post is necessary to inform people of the reality. Thank you.

  8. There is strong documentation that the Japanese military was ready to stage a coup to prevent surrender in the days after the bombings, and only strong and fortuitous actions by the Emperor’s inner circle staved off the coup. Japan’s military was not ready to surrender and had the coup in motion. Additionally, I’ve talked to quite a few US veterans who were in training for the invasion. They expected 90% casualties if they hit the mainland beaches, and all of them said that they cheered when they heard about the bombs being dropped. Their invasion missions were near-suicidal, and they felt great relief at the use of the bomb. It was awful, and I think there were alternative actions the US could have taken. But Japan’s elite military commanders were not ready to surrender, and US soldiers widely supported the bombings.

  9. My father was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. In the weeks before he passed away, he told me how guilty he felt about having been forced to take part in a project that he was told (by the US Government) would never be used against humanity. This is a deeply powerful and sensitive subject. Thanks for posting!

  10. Cyrus Quick

    Most of the buildings blown away were wooden houses. I always wonder if FDR would have used the A-bomb. And if not, would his nibs have faced down the military in time to prevent invasion. And since invasion would have been too costly of US lives, would not a simple 100% blockade have worked just fine, given defeat of all Japanese forces abroad were completed.

  11. Cyrus Quick

    I would like to add to my previous Comment:

    In many cities in Nazi Germany, Allied blanket bombing of Nazi occupied cities caused the same mass burning alive as the single bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did on each of those targets. The Nazis had caused the same suffering in the cities that they attacked in UK and thruout continental western Eurasia.

    When I too read Hiroshima by NYT reporter John Hershey I was a young adult and devastated. But I had ALREADY overheard adults discussing it AT THE TIME, when I was almost 6, in York which was hardly blitzed at all. It was my first experience of my own crippling sensitivity, and of the other kids’ sickening ignorance and/or indifference, as I stood by the school railings in deep depression, and they kicked their balls around the playground, and/or sought out fights.

    The human species is split into the sensitive and the callous. It is our tragedy that we sensitive souls do not have what it takes to nuke the callous. But in any case, how we get the callous into one place ready to be exterminated? Setting aside sick humour, the answer, infuriatingly, involves hard work, over many generations, building a deity-free, nationalism-free, sensitive, but strong, civilisation.

    Am I allowed to mention the possibility of genetic research to identify the violence genes and abort them?

    Every body learning one language (English, thanks to US dominance) is the good start.

  12. Does your knowledge of history include “the Rhine Bastards” who they were and how they got where they were? Have you served in harm’s way, watch a man or woman gladly take their life to kill many? There will always be war, my father told us” if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” !

  13. Some of the detail is shocking. It paints a strong grotesque image in my head that is as every bit a nightmare as it is a reality. I hope that people, especially our new generations do not forget this and I appreciate those who have survived and find courage to share with the world. Since WWII the UN was born and a stronger global sense of human rights. I pray that nothing so awful will happen again to neither my friends or enemies.

  14. I just can’t imagine being in that room of U.S. military commanders trying to make the decision on whether or not to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. It must have seemed so right. Yet only history can be the best determining agent. For this reason, I thank the Lord for poets.

  15. Great post. Japan did not surrender until the U.S. dropped the second bomb, so it’s tough to speculate on what would have forced a surrender. It is one of the darkest days for mankind. When people forget what war means, they begin to clamor for it.

  16. “even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated’.””-
    After the barbaric and anti-human atomic bombings of the Japanese Supreme War Council was not even going.
    After the announcement of the USSR war Japan, the supreme council of war Japan was convened and it was stated that the continuation of hostilities pointless.//
    People who live a normal life – go to work, raise their children, take care of their parents – the people.
    World oligarchic groups – a vile and cowardly creature.
    -That That I have not heard that the children of the Rockefellers, Morgans, Children of the English political elite were killed in the First or Second World Wars…
    Stalin’s son – Yakov Dzhugashvili was a pilot, was surrounded and taken prisoner by the German Nazis.
    The Germans offered Stalin changed Jacob to General Paulus.
    Stalin replied – “I am a soldier on the generals do not change” ..
    ———–
    In two nuclear bombings killed about 200 thousand Japanese PEOPLES.
    This city were not important from military point of view.
    Immorality of the American government – the eternal shame for all humanity.
    When people in a million years would teach history, the question-who first flew in space? -they will know that it was Yuri Gagarin, and the question-who is the first to use nuclear weapons against the people? – They know that it made the United States.

  17. In July last year I visited Hiroshima. I had a day off from training in Himeji (as an Engineer for Mitsubishi Quality Control). It rained all day (Which seemed a perfect day for such a sad trip. As if God is still crying over the devastation) and I had no umbrella but went to see the A-Bomb Museum in Hiroshima anyways. I walked in the rain and took photos using my phone. School children were being taught in groups using photo albums. It mad me very sad to see the photos of the injured and read the stories of those who died that day. The numbers claimed 60-90,000 died that day and a like number over the next 6 months. The effects of the blast and the radiation are still measurable there. Even to this very day people are being affected by the results of the bomb. I am proud to say I signed a petition for the destruction of all nuclear weapons around the world. I’ll never forget what I learned there and I shall share with others all I learned for the rest of my life.

  18. I’m not sure many people in America truly appreciate the horror of that bombing. We talk abut the politics, about the strategy, etc., but the real story is the human suffering and the horrendous death toll. Good post.

  19. Korean Kat

    I expected better of you Mr. Malik based on your study of moral philosophy and general rationalism, but you have doing nothing more than put an artistic veneer on shallow, postmodern moral preening. The decision to use atomic bombs was made in the context of the largest conflict in human history, against the initiating aggressor, with the imperfect knowledge that surrounds any wartime situation, particularly a novel technology.

    Since it apparently needs to be repeated, Imperial Japan was a brutal fascist state that unleashed an orgy of violence on Eastern Asia in the 20th century leaving tens of millions of Asians dead. Internal resistance to its colonialism, mass rape, enslavement, and war-mongering was infinitesimal. To this day Japanese recognition of its guilt is shallow overall, and utterly non-existent among nationalists, as the abomination of Yasukuni shrine exemplifies.

    Western leftists driven by tiresome, rote anti-Americanism do little more than hand Japan an annual excuse to avoid sober reflection on the needless attrocities it committed and instead wallow in the comfort of faux victimhood. You become apologists for fascism and the conformist mindset on which it fed. Despite the ‘ready to surrender’ myth, never forget it took two bombs to shatter the fascist resolve. Two.

    • Leave aside the question of whether the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to bring about a swift end to the war (a claim that, as I suggest in the introduction, is a product of revisionist history). If it is ‘moral preening’ to question whether the deliberate, mass slaughter of civilians is morally acceptable, then, yes, I preen. I’d suggest that anyone who does not raise such questions, or dismisses them as ‘anti-American’ (!), may not preen, but they are certainly morally blind.

      • I admire you responding to me and understand that my challenge is so counter to the prevailing liberal-left orthodoxy that it must seem shocking.

        So if this matter is one of the “deliberate, mass slaughter of civilians,” then my first question for you to ponder is ‘why are the more deadly 1945 bombings of Tokyo not your focal point?’ In turn why are the indiscriminate bombing in Germany, postwar ethnic cleansing of Germans from Eastern Europe, and food shortages in Germany (while its neighbors ate well) which killed far more people, not a higher priority?

        In turn, what is Japan’s collective moral consciousness on its “deliberate, mass slaughter of civilians?” And if you agree that is wanting, and far more wanting in terms of the order of magnitude more victims on Japan’s side, then why are Westerners helping them maintain a dominant narrative of their own pitiable victimhood?

        Did you see the resistance to a monument to ‘comfort women’ like my grandmother in Glendale, California? We just won a court case against a Japanese-American woman who actually filled suit to block display of the statue. She, of course, had lots of support in Japan.

        And yet in the face of that sort of resistance to even a modicum of contrition, Western liberals and leftists indulge this narrative of ‘atomic guilt’ which obscures Japan’s status as an imperialist, colonialist, and genocidal power. This is perversely ironic because Japan marched its armies under a banner of ‘anti-colonialism.’

        Above Yani Hyunnie (an ethnic Japanese name) writes ” the most tragic events that has ever happened in our history during the 20th century.” Well, they can get in line behind Chinese famine victims, victims of Communist purges, the victims of Nazi genocide, the victims of late Ottoman genocide, the victims of Japanese genocide, the victims of Indonesian genocide, Cambodians, victims in the former East Pakistan, Indians caught in partition ares, Vietnamese civilians,… How many of them get such annual outpourings of grief and consciousness?

        This has become an idee fixé and that is dangerous for moral reasoning I also stand by the point that the Hiroshima-Nagasaki narrative is a central feature of post-war anti-Americanism:

        1. It serves to delegitimize American moral superiority in the context of a war that the United States did not start.

        2. It carefully elucidates the Soviet factor to play into Cold War sympathies on the left.

        3. Maintains a simplistic discourse of white aggression and non-white victimhood in world affairs.

        4. It uses ex post facto knowledge of radiation physics to imply extraordinary malice.*

        *I will also note that we know Japanese scientists considered developing atomic weapons too, and declined to do so due to due to logistical, rather than moral reasons.

        I’ve read four of your books, so I am well aware you have deep leftwing roots. Still I respect you precisely because you usually are willing to question even sacrosanct notions like multiculturalism in the context of liberalism and morality.

        • Why should the fact that Tokyo was firebombed or that there was indiscriminate bombing in Germany or that more people died in food shortages in Germany require us to have fewer moral qualms about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That is moral relativism and ‘whataboutery’ of the worst kind. If you wish to make an argument that Japan has not faced up to its actions in the past, or if you want to question the left’s anti-Americanism, do so. I would, as it happens, agree with you, at least in broad terms. But to suggest that either is relevant to judging the moral case for the A-bombings is to eviscerate moral thinking.

        • It is not a question of moral relativism, but moral consistency and moral priorities. My argument is that you are ignoring the worse loss of civilian life involving bombardment of Japan by the United States in teh same year. That requires some explanation. You are also ignoring worse infliction of harm on civilians by both actors during the same war and its aftermath. That also requires a justification of one’s priorities.

          There are obviously legitimate reasons to focus uniquely on atomic weapons because of their longterm radiological effects. The problem is that many people want to attribute malice to the United States in this regard which was simply not present in order to feed anti-American narratives. The atomic bomb was just a giant, city-levelling bomb to decision makers in 1945. It was really only in the 1950’s when radiation health effects beyond being exposed to acute doses (e.g. Louis Slotin) became clear. Fermi died of cancer, Oppenheimer died of cancer, Rosalind Franklin died of cancer, and on and on. The fact kids were using X-ray machines to try on shoes, probably underscores the general obliviousness more than anything. Comments like Eisenhower’s are made in the 20/20 moral vision of hindsight. He also did not face the same level of resistance as the commanders in the Pacific Theatre, and he was second-guessing men in a more difficult situation.

          At the end of the day, I see the atomic bombs as what broke Japan’s will and ended forty years of vicious colonial rule in Korea and over a decade of genocidal savagery in China. While it turns out Maoism would chew up way more human lives than Japanese fascism, including in the Korean peninsula, I still defend the U.S.’s decision to end a the war as it did. The fact it took two bomb only reinforces my stance.

          — Katherine

        • I happen to think that the firebombing of Tokyo was morally reprehensible. But the issue here is not whether or not the firebombing of Tokyo – or the Rape of Nanking or the Bengal famine or the Katyn massacre, or countless other atrocities – were or were not morally acceptable. The issue here is the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is nothing ‘inconsistent’ about not mentioning X when talking about Y. Nor am I questioning the morality of the bombings because of the use of nuclear weapons. I am questioning the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians. ‘The atomic bomb was just a giant, city-levelling bomb to decision makers in 1945’. Exactly.

        • “There is nothing ‘inconsistent’ about not mentioning X when talking about Y.”

          Actually ignoring Y, when X and Y have an intimate and/or obvious connection, is very much suspect.

          All major powers in WWII targeted civilians. It was, moreover, fascist Japan and Germany that openly embraced the concept of “Total War.” The atomic bombs are far from the worst collective harm to civilians during the war, and not even the worst bombing campaign. When you say it is not the nuclear-factor of the bombings, you obviate what little legitimacy you (and others with this particular annual passion) had for this focus.

          If you want to make a point about America (out of all the powers) not respecting civilian life, then you have a moral and intellectual obligation start with greatest loss of said life: the German civilian loses _after_ the war in Europe was over. To ignore that in favor of other issues without acknowledgement or explaining a more particular focus raises all sorts of red flags about bias and agenda. To preferentially focus on loss of civilian life in an aggressor state from when hostilities were still underway is particularly insupportable.

          I reiterate: the entire Hiroshima-Nagasaki narrative is just a shallow leftwing trope that serves this peculiar post-modern relishing of guilt in the West and a remorseless nationalism in Japan.

          — Katherine

        • OK, let me try yet again. I am morally opposed to the firebombing of Tokyo because it was the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians for the sake of creating terror. I am morally opposed to the firebombing of Dresden because it was the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians for the sake of creating terror. And I am morally opposed to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because it was the deliberate mass slaughter of civilians for the sake of creating terror. The fact that more people may have been killed in Tokyo (or in Germany after the war) than were killed Hiroshima does nothing to alter my view. There is more to making moral judgments than tallying up dead bodies. Neither does the fact that the dead civilians happen to Japanese have a bearing on that moral judgment. The fact that you seem to think that it does (‘To preferentially focus on loss of civilian life in an aggressor state from when hostilities were still underway is particularly insupportable’) seems to me to be morally reprehensible. However, I recognize that I am not going to change your mind on this. So let us leave this discussion as it is.

  20. cyrusquick

    The blogger knows perfectly well Japan was much worse in scale in the area of atrocious slaughter of civilians. But the blogger is irrationally anti-USA so turns a blind mind to Japan’s cruelty in Asia. It is pointless trying insert a sliver of daylight into the mind of a posturing red. A true social-ist and commune-ist is capable of even-handed evaluation. Sadly, the blogger here is only concerned with appearing (to himself) as a superior being. USA and Japan were and are still human, hopefully capable of admitting fault. Who scores best on that rating? I am profoundly disappointed in the imperfections of the Anglo-Saxon people, my people. But we show promise…

  21. Thank you very much for sharing. My grandfather has been a soldier during the II WW and he’s been to Russia as part of the Italian army. He remembers every single day of those times, and says that after that he totally lost his trust in humans.
    Thank you again.

  22. “I know not with which weapons we will fight the third world war, but we fight the fourth world war with sticks and stones” – Albert Einstien

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