Friday, June 22, 2007

The Rape of Nanking-Iris Chang (book review)

"Portrait of the late Iris Chang 1968-2004"

The Rape of Nanking The Forgotten Holocaust-Iris Chang (1998)

I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I’m Chinese, I knew surprisingly little about the December 1937 atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking . While most westerners think that the invasion of Poland in 1939 was the first act of World War 2, the Rape of Nanking may have been the single biggest atrocity of the most destructive war in human history. In a thirty six day period in the winter of 1937, Japanese soldiers killed three hundred thousand Chinese (mostly civilians) and committed as many as eighty thousand rapes in a city that had roughly a million people just prior to the invasion. Chang’s book not only documents the carnage, but covers the events that led up to this “forgotten” holocaust, and explores the reasons that so little was known about the extent and nature of what has to be one of the most barbarous events of the last hundred years.

Reading (I actually listened to the book on tape) Chang’s book so soon after seeing Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima was an emotional-intellectual challenge. Where Eastwood’s Japanese soldiers come across as individuals with hopes, babies, wives, and a sense of honor and decency, Chang’s book consists of hundreds of pages of Japanese soldiers holding contests to see who can kill a hundred prisoners the fastest, gang-raping young girls, pregnant women, and grandmothers, looting homes, and performing unimaginable acts of senseless cruelty. Chang was a first-rate journalist who used a combination of Japanese, German, Chinese, and American sources in documenting what had essentially been a “lost” episode of history. Like most holocaust stories, I found it physically painful just to listen to the cataloguing of events, but it was also cleansing in its way like wiping away the grime from a window of an abandoned house. The inside might be filled with dust and rot, but you now know something worth remembering.

Chang chose a somewhat flat-toned journalistic style, letting the facts of the atrocities speak for themselves. In this case, the sense of reserve in which the outrage is left off the page, lets you feel the horror all the more. At times, you can tell that the author is holding back her own anger and grief so that the reader will see, consider, and respond without being led. This is especially effective in her physical description of the atrocities that include events like hanging civilians on a hook and using them for bayonet practice or discussing the Japanese practice of kidnapping women for rape and euphemistically calling them “comfort” women. It is equally effective when Chang describes the political and social conditions that led to the Japanese invasion by starting with Perry and running through the toxic pairing of a Japanese economic slump with the rise of right wing Japanese militarism/nationalism.

There’s probably not enough written about the importance of remembering Nanking as an event that was every bit as horrifying and massive as Hitler’s extermination of Jews, Slavs, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. Chang’s book probably did more than any single work in English to help ensure that Americans knew about the tragedy. It deserves to be read for that reason alone.

When you read something often affects the way you think about it. In this case, I had recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima and I’ve spent the last 4 years following news reports of America’s misadventure in Iraq. One may never know why tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers slipped into viciousness for an entire winter in Nanking, the Chinese capital, in late 1937 and early 1938 (Chang does make a very strong case for the fact that much of the carnage was ordered by the high command and that the emperor and the government were aware of the policy). Even more scary, we’ll always have to wonder why the world “missed” the event both as it happened and after the war. On the first count, I found myself wondering how the Letters from Iwo Jima Soldiers could be the same sorts of individuals who got loose in Nanking. Chang does not claim to have the answer, but her speculations should have some resonance for Americans today, ten years after the publication of her book and three years after her death.

1) Post-Tokugawa Japan encouraged a strong sense of Japanese exceptionalism that included the belief that Japan as a nation had a right to the resources of Asia as part of its destiny as a special nation.

2) The Japanese education system stressed unquestioning obedience and blind patriotism. (deliberate government policy) This belief encouraged the view that the Emperor and military superiors were infallible and defined “right” as whatever they ordered.

3) Control of Japanese politics by a militarist-industrialist faction which equated its own needs with the “good of Japan”

4) A view of the Chinese as different or less human.

5) A lack of institutional checks on government that resulted in no system of accountability.

I think it’s important to point out that there are significant differences of degree between some of what’s happening in contemporary America and in World War 2 era Japan, but I certainly was aware of the resonances. In particular, the persistent rhetoric that certain factions of the Moslem world simply want to kill all Americans or each other reminds me of the way the Japanese dehumanized the Chinese to get their soldiers to be ruthlessly efficient. Second, throughout the book there was a pairing of unrestrained violence and sexual depravity that hauntingly echoed Abu Ghraib.

So which view was more accurate? Is it Eastwood’s humanistic view of men at war in Letters from Iwo Jima or Chang’s portrait of evil embodied in Nanking (she does include instances of Japanese soldiers who were both horrified by what was going on and individuals who were deeply regretful about what they had done)? My guess is that both portraits are accurate.

The older I get, the more I suspect that people are neither naturally kind and “humane” or Hobbesian monsters who must be kept in check. We all have the potential for both and most of us have the capacity to choose between the two. This, however, can be manipulated in frightening ways by cultural and political forces. I don’t think that Japanese, German, American soldiers, or Iraqi rebels are any more or less vicious or kind than one another. War itself simply lets loose the worst and very very occasionally the best in all of us because it places so many in situations where the normal rules no longer seem to apply. No one is “good” simply because he/she wears a given uniform or waves a particular flag.

In some ways, the collective amnesia about the Rape of Nanking as described by Chang is even more haunting. For instance, I had no idea that as a prelude to the invasion, the Japanese bombed an American gunboat that was sailing away from the city loaded with individuals tyring to get out before the siege. FDR chose to let the Japanese pay reparations despite clear evidence that the attack was deliberate, a kind of test to see if the United States would attempt to protect its Chinese allies in Nanking.

Chang is especially good in describing the post-war attempts of the Japanese government and the Japanese ultra-right to literally erase history. She mentions one Japanese teacher in the 1990’s who was shocked to be asked by his high school students, “The Japanese and Americans were at war once? Who won?”

One of the saddest aspects of the Rape of Nanking is that large numbers of the guilty not only went unpunished, they played key roles in Japanese government and business after the war. In particular, a member of the royal family Prince Asaka may have been the one responsible for the order to kill all Chinese prisoners that turned a military operation into an atrocity. More than fifty years after the incident, brave Japanese scholars were still having to fight to get mention of the atrocities of Nanking into Japanese history textbooks.

The rest of the world also wanted to ignore this other holocaust. While Chang’s book has many anecdotes and characters who would be fascinating subjects for fiction or movie treatment, the most fascinating of all is one of the heroes of Nanking, John Rabe. Rabe was one of the leaders of the Nazi party in Nanking. Horrifed by what was happening, he used his status as a German official to rescue hundreds even thousands of Chinese from the Japanese. For the next twelve years, Rabe devoted his life to making sure the German government and later the world knew about the nature and extent of the massacre. He even sent a copy of movie footage and his documentation to Hitler.
Rabe was taken in by the Gestapo and told to stop speaking of the incident, presumably because Japan and Germany were allies. At the end of the war, his life and livelihood were ruined by the de-Nazification process in which he was identified as an active member of the party. It took years for Rabe’s role in saving so many in Nanking to have any impact on the bureaucracy to recognize that he had been a Nazi and a good man all at the same time. At that point, Rabe and his family had almost literally starved to death.

One of the more shocking aspects of the “coverup” is that China itself did so little to draw attention to the horrors of Nanking. Chang explains that the politics of the cold war encouraged Mao to stay relatively silent about Nanking in order to keep a trade relationship with Japan. In turn, cold war China and America occasionally used Nanking as an opportunity somehow to demonize one another. The Chinese tried to claim that Americans in the international zone betrayed Chinese in 1937. The Americans simply preferred not to make the citizens of a communist country sympathetic and were also committed to the inclusion of the Emperor and his family in a reconstructed and now pro-western Japan.

If there is one theme to the cover up, it’s the consistent suppression and manipulation of information for political purposes. As a result, most of the heroes of Nanking never were properly honored for their courage and heart and many of the villains went on to lead shockingly comfortable lives.

Saddest of all though is what happened to Iris Chang herself. A very fine non-fiction writer who wrote three books about three twentieth century tragedies, Chang slipped into depression that sometimes bordered on paranoia. Some believe she identified deeply with the suffering that she wrote about so eloquently. It’s fascinating to ponder her restraint in writing about some of these horrors (her last books were about the Bataan death march and a history of the Chinese in America that argued that even the most successful Chinese-Americans still feel like outsiders) and how the strong feelings she kept off the page may have stayed on within her. She took her own life near her home in Northern California at the age of 36. After the book she had crusaded, some say obsessively, to get the Japanese to officially apologize for their conduct during World War 2 and pay reparations to the victims. She may have internalized the pain of her subjects in a way that made gave her the energy to write about them yet made it hard for her to live herself. In a sense, she wound up yet another victim of not just the Rape of Nanking but the horror that still coarses through nations who insist that war is any kind of solution.



At 6/24/2007 08:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for reviewing this terrible story. I knew little about this, just as I only found out two ago about the dozens of Baltimore/Houston-sized Japanese cities America firebombed to ruin during WWII. I had only heard about Dresden.

Recently Ken Burns said of WWII that (in notes I took from a speech he gave)it wasn't the good war -- it was the worst war ever, the greatest cataclysm. That 60 million human beings were killed. That most soldiers saw and did unspeakable things. That war is the most horrible thing human beings do, what Whitman called 'the seething hell, the black infernal background' that the future never knows (or wants to know).

I'm not sure how Ms. Chang could inhabit that seething hell at such a young age without brutal damage, sadly irreparable.

At 6/24/2007 10:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read about the Rape of Nanking in Susan Brownmiller's book "Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape". Her conclusion was that men are just natural rapists, and given an opportunity, they'll rape. I don't think I could live in the world if I believed that. I have to think war itself is dehumanizing, and creates murderers and rapists out of otherwise ordinary people.

It's scary that people are capable of such brutality, and such denial.

At 6/25/2007 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I honestly don't know much about Iris Chang and she may be the only one who knows the role her "subjects" played in her depression, but she brought attention to some horrifying injustices. I would guess the best way to honor her memory and more important those of the victims is to do what we can to prevent these things from ever happening again.


Chang actually mentions Brownmiller in her book. iirc, Brownmiller's thesis was that rape is usually an act of political control rather than an erotic act.
I don't know what behavior is "natural" or not Natural. I do think that certain conditions make particular acts seem more natural than they should be.

It definitely wasn't a fun book to listen to. I was glad to have done so, but I find just reading things like that that I have to space them out and be in the right mood. I avoided seeing Schindler's List for something like three years for that reason.

At 3/20/2008 12:45:00 PM, Blogger RCG said...

I've had exactly the same reaction in attempting to listen to this book on tape. I have to take it in small doses. It is tough slogging, but I feel like I owe it to the victims to acknowledge their suffering by hearing the story in full. My thoughts turned to My Lai when I first listened to descriptions of the outrages visited upon innocent civilians in Nanking. In every generation there seems to be a signature event(s)that reminds us of the potential of human beings to inflict great pain and suffering on others. I am always astounded that the impulse to care for others and reduce suffering is not strong enough to extinguish the impulse toward cruelty. In this case, unimaginable cruelty. I shake my head when I sometimes hear people advocate torture as a way to deal with criminals. As the old folk song goes, "Take your place on the Great Mandala...its been going on for 10,000 years..."

At 3/20/2008 03:12:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

yeah, it just makes for tough reading/listening. I think one difference between Nanking and My Lai is that the atrocities in Nanking appeared to be deliberate policy or at least deliberate refusal of higher ups to address the situation. The order to kill all the Chinese POWs was certainly a military order.
It's not clear how "official" what happened at My Lai was, but it's clear that the US did try those it felt were responsible and disavowed the action.


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