Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: The Rape of Nanking

A review of The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II, by Iris Chang.

This book, controversial when it came out in 1997, shines a clear, accusatory light on the war crimes of the Japanese in Nanjing in 1938. At the time of The Rape's publication, the massacre was largely unknown in America, outside of academia.

It cannot be denied that this is a subjective book, one with an agenda and a mission. However, given the nature of the mission, possibly the questionable remarks from Chang about Japanese intent (and "the Japanese psyche") can be condoned, if not excused. I'd studied the events in my Japan History class, but reading this book was still shocking. Chang discusses the brutal tortures in some detail, driving home the awful barbarism of it all. She also extols the virtues of the foreigners who helped save thousands of Chinese lives, including, perhaps ironically, the high-ranking Nazi official John Rabe.

Then there is what she calls the "second Rape," namely the efforts of right-wing Japanese, both official and private, to discount the massacre, deny the killings, and depict the rapes as merely the use of willing prostitutes. The lengths to which these revisionists go to defend the "honor" of their empire and portray themselves endlessly as victims of aggression are just as shocking as the massacre itself. Yes, it's true that all nations do this --- there are few white Americans who acknowledge how great our crimes against Indians, Africans and Mexicans are --- but it's shocking nonetheless. Chang recounts that those Japanese who do speak out for the Rape and its victims are subjected to ridicule and even death threats.

This is a truly important book, and Chang was both honored and reviled for it. Tragically, she submitted to severe depression and killed herself in 2004.


Sunday Warbooks casualty count:

Greco-Persian wars: 1
WWI: 1
WWII: 3 <--- winning!
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2


Michael5000 said...

"Rape of Nanking" has been on my vague "I Should Read That Sometime" list (as opposed to The Reading List, or my To-Read Shelves) ever since it was released. It's kind of shocking to realize it has been there for eleven years.

C'mon WWI! You can catch up! They don't call you The Great War for nothin!

Michael5000 said...

And now, a poem for Sunday Warbooks:

"The Loneliness of the Military Historian"
Margaret Atwood

Confess: it’s my profession
that alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
I wear dresses of sensible cut
and unalarming shades of beige,
I smell of lavender and go to the hairdresser’s:
no prophetess mane of mine,
complete with snakes, will frighten the youngsters.
If I roll my eyes and mutter,
if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror
like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,
I do it in private and nobody sees
but the bathroom mirror.

In general I might agree with you:
women should not contemplate war,
should not weigh tactics impartially,
or evade the word enemy,
or view both sides and denounce nothing.
Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
spit themselves on bayonets
to protect their babies,
whose skulls will be split anyway,
or, having been raped repeatedly,
hang themselves with their own hair.
These are the functions that inspire general comfort.
That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.
Sons, lovers, and so forth.
All the killed children.

Instead of this, I tell
what I hope will pass as truth.
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The truth is seldom welcome,
especially at dinner,
though I am good at what I do.
My trade is courage and atrocities.
I look at them and do not condemn.
I write things down the way they happened,
as near as can be remembered.
I don’t ask why, because it is mostly the same.
Wars happen because the ones who start them
think they can win.

In my dreams there is glamour.
The Vikings leave their fields
each year for a few months of killing and plunder,
much as the boys go hunting.
In real life they were farmers.
They come back loaded with splendour.
The Arabs ride against Crusaders
with scimitars that could sever
silk in the air.
A swift cut to the horse’s neck
and a hunk of armour crashes down
like a tower. Fire against metal.
A poet might say: romance against banality.
When awake, I know better.

Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,
or none that can be finally buried.
Finish one off, and circumstances
and the radio create another.
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
to God all night and meant it,
and been slaughtered anyway.
Brutality wins frequently,
and large outcomes have turned on the invention
of a mechanical device, viz. radar.
True, valour sometimes counts for something,
as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right—
though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,
is decided by the winner.
Sometimes men throw themselves on grenades
and burst like paper bags of guts
to save their comrades.
I can admire that.
But rats and cholera have won many wars.
Those, and potatoes,
or the absence of them.
It’s no use pinning all those medals
across the chests of the dead.
Impressive, but I know too much.
Grand exploits merely depress me.

In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.
Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.
Sad marble angels brood like hens
over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.
(The angels could just as well be described as vulgar
or pitiless, depending on camera angle.)
The word glory figures a lot on gateways.
Of course I pick a flower or two
from each, and press it in the hotel Bible
for a souvenir.
I’m just as human as you.

But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
Also statistics:
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.

Chance said...

That is totally awesome. Thank you.

Michael5000 said...

My pleasure.