THE morning of Aug. 6 approaches. Once again the photograph of a scorched watch, with the hands fixed forever at 8:16, appears in newspapers and magazines to remind us of the exact moment the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. As always, we come to the anniversary of the first day of the Nuclear Age with a reluctance compounded of confusion and distress. And why not? Who would wish to bear witness again, for the 40th time, to that fireball in the sky, or to that wasteland underneath, made even more desolate by the domed building still perversely standing beside a single tree defoliated and twisted like a cross?
Yet it seems to be our duty -- the least we can do -- to recall for still another year the story of The Bomb. This has become the family album of the nuclear generation. The yellowing pages of our scrapbook turn, and here is Robert Oppenheimer, angular as a stork, on the desert of New Mexico. And here is Col. Paul Tibbets, clear-eyed and nonchalant, beside his B-29. And here are the faces, then and now, of Japanese walking the streets of Hiroshima on the summer morning of Aug. 6, 1945.
Repetition has taken its toll. By now the story has acquired the polished smoothness of a myth, even though, for 364 days of the year, we come close to forgetting the unforgettable.
By now the words ``holocaust'' and ``apocalypse'' have been invoked so often that they glance off the mind -- syllables with blunted edges.
By now inevitable touches of chic creep into the retelling. This year the mushroom cloud has become a graphic designer's logo to tie a magazine supplement together.
By now we have abstracted the raw event all too neatly into stats. Any schoolchild can reel off the figures that prove how puny a blast ravaged Hiroshima compared with the explosion the most modest warhead would detonate today.
By now every possible posture has been struck. Who has not read Jonathan Schell's ``The Fate of the Earth,'' or a book like it? Who has not seen the film ``The Day After,'' or a scenario equally determined to outdo with special effects the 43 seconds of destruction 40 years ago?
By now, in short, our responses seem orchestrated. Right on cue, we can be counted on to chorus, ``Never before have human beings possessed so much power -- never before have human beings felt so powerless.''
We are getting good at paying our respects to problems we do little about.
We can perform our Hiroshima interlude with compassionate efficiency, for the 40th time, and return to business as usual. But should we?
Maybe the 40th anniversary -- if the round number does little else -- ought to force us to acknowledge that we have reduced nothing to a formula except our habits of commemoration. In the four decades of the Nuclear Age no consensus has been reached on how this proliferating monster in our midst may be contained and controlled. Neither the people in the Pentagon nor the demonstrators who wind ribbons about them nor the negotiators at the SALT tables nor all the politicians in four decades of world hist ory have come even close to resolving the unprecedented dilemma tragically dramatized by Hiroshima.
The Bomb has become our Tower of Babel. If anything, we sound more muddled than in 1945 as we talk about a ``protracted limited nuclear war'' or argue over ``star wars'' or debate the latest moot question: Will World War III destroy more people by means of ``nuclear winter'' or starvation?
Martin Buber's prediction to the nuclear strategists of 30 years ago would appear to have come true: ``The game plays with you.''
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in everything but nuclear stockpiles we are still back at Square 1 -- power brokers and idealists alike -- lacking the right answers, or even the right questions.
Sometime before 1945, before we all got into our rut, historians reported the excavation of a Roman monument in North Africa estimated to be 2,000 years old. The inscription on the stone formed a curiously prophetic challenge to the men and women of the Nuclear Age, as more than one commentator has noted. The epitaph reads: ``Here am I, the captain of a legion of Rome who serves in the desert of Libya and learns and ponders this truth: that there are in life but two things, love and power, and no man
So speaks Roman stoicism. Are we prepared then to concede that the captain is right and to join him in a post-nuclear world that has become all desert, without even a monument?
For 40 years, in fact, we have behaved like stoics, all too readily granting, like a good, weary Roman, that love is ineffectual and power is cynical -- and this may be the real point.
If we are serious about Hiroshima -- doves, hawks, and everybody in between -- we will not wait for the next retrospective, in 1986. We will begin the 41st year on Aug. 7 with a confession that we have, for four decades, posed as peacemakers at anniversary time. Now and then we have even worked as peacemakers in between. But none of us on earth during the past 40 years have begun to do all that ingenious and passionate human beings can do in behalf of peace.
Such a confession would lead at least to clarity, and just possibly to a modest renewal of hope.
A Wednesday and Friday column