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This is the book review of "The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang|
CSPAN Booknotes (1998)
In December 1937, after the Chinese Army defending Nanking abandoned resistance, the Japanese Army proceeded to overrun the ancient capital city and wreaked unholy havoc. In the following weeks, the Japanese raped and/or murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians (perhaps as many as 350,000 were killed) in one of the most brutal episodes in the long bloody history of warfare.
But, if you're like me, "the rape of Nanking" is little more than a vaguely remembered term from a history book. Iris Chang's book remedies that situation, giving the facts the full airing that they deserve, and explains why the massacre is so poorly remembered--largely because of political considerations she argues. The result is a really moving act of remembrance that offers a mixed bag of lessons.
In the first instance, like all such books, Chang goes a little bit overboard, but understandably so, in trying to claim pride of place for the Rape of Nanking in the catalogue of genocidal rampages. Arguments of this kind reach a point where they have a too self-centered and masochistic tinge to them.
It suffices, that the acts perpetrated upon the Chinese population by the Japanese Army are horrific. No hyperbole is needed. Nor is it necessary to, as Ms Chang does, portray the world's relative failure to commemorate these events and the Japanese government's failure to compensate victims as a second rape.
I would think that firebombing the living bejeezus out of Tokyo and dropping two atomic bombs would have amply demonstrated our displeasure with the Japanese. Even if it was vicarious, the victims surely got their pound of flesh.
Her argument that political considerations in America, Japan and China have created a kind of conspiracy of silence is more compelling.
The Red Chinese government which took over the country after the war, chose not to make an issue of the rape for their own reasons--the shame that this xenophobic regime must have felt appears to have ensured their silence. The Japanese have obvious reasons for not wanting to dwell on the massacre, but she is absolutely right that they have a moral obligation to acknowledge that they perpetrated, to teach their youngsters about these darkest aspects of the war and perhaps even to make some restitution to survivors. The aggressive campaign by certain elements in Japanese society to deny that the rape ever took place or was as bad as purported is troubling, but is part of a much larger societal ill in Japanese culture, a failure to reckon with endemic racism and a to come to grips with a pretty ugly past.
Sadly, willful blindness to the facts of Nanking is only a symptom of a larger disease.
America, for it's part, wanted to rehabilitate postwar Japan so that we'd have a good ally in the quickly descending Cold War. It ill served our purposes to rub their noses in their obviously abhorrent record of war crimes. But it should be remembered that we pretty much let them off the hook for things like the Bataan Death March too. There is no discernible racial component here, simply icy cold realpolitik. But Chang is absolutely right on this point, that none of the three nations has been willing to make the atrocities a public issue.
One really edifying lesson that emerges is the danger of judging people too easily. Chang reconstructs the truly remarkable and heroic efforts of the European/American community in Nanking to try and protect refugees from the Japanese. Amazingly enough it turns out that one of the prime movers in this effort, the "Oskar Schindler of Nanking" (see Orrin's review of Schindler's List), was a Nazi official named John Rabe. The passages describing his actions on behalf of the Chinese, even to the point of demanding a meeting with the Fuhrer, make for one of the most fascinating sections of the book.
Finally, the most important lessons are offered in what I thought was an excellent and insightful conclusion to the book: that the Japanese were not "uniquely sinister", that there is a relatively thin veneer of civilization that stands between any culture and the capacity for such horrible actions; and that it is all too easy to accept such genocidal actions even as they are occurring. These lessons are being driven home today in places like Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda and warning flags are going up in the nations of Europe where fascist anti-immigrant parties are gaining ground from Austria to France and beyond. But the big lesson that Chang cites--the most important lesson of the last century--is the danger that we all face whenever governments centralize power to themselves. The 20th Century was characterized by two directly related phenomena, the increasing centralization of political power in the hands of national governments and the bureaucrats who run them and the vicious, often homicidal, application of that power to those nations' own citizens. From the internment of Japanese Americans by FDR to the Nazi Death Camps to the Russian gulag to the Rape of Nanking to the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the current instances in Africa and the Balkans, this is a lesson that has been demonstrated time and again but which we seem inordinately reluctant to accept. Governments are simply too untrustworthy too allow them to aggrandize the amount of power that has become routine in modern times. It is reflexive to defend the American system as somehow special and beyond these kind of considerations, but I for one am awfully grateful that this theory was not put to the test in WWII. You may feel confident that we would never have exacted some warped retribution on the citizens we sent to concentration camps, but I tremble to think what their fate might have been had the war in the Pacific gone poorly for us, or had it been San Francisco that was firebombed instead of Tokyo.
Chang's excellent book implicates all of these issues and should engender much soul searching. Her excesses of tone are perfectly understandable in light of her topic and her sense of mission, to bring these largely forgotten facts before a disinterested public.