Fearful Symmetries

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23 October, 2013

Another Side of World War II: The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

Having read Iris Chang's The Chinese in America and found it quite engaging and enlightening, I was happy to find another of her books, The Rape of Nanking.

I was a bit perturbed while reading the introduction when I ran across this: “Yet the Rape of Nanking remains an obscure incident.” Chang goes on to list various well-known histories of World War II which mention the Japanese atrocities in Nanking only in passing, if at all. Having had a father who was a WWII history buff, I knew about the Rape of Nanking, so I am at somewhat of an advantage over many people regarding the conflict. Still, one would think the sheer cruelty on display those several weeks would have taken their place alongside other infamous acts of barbarity from the war.

The book addresses two broad aspects to the topic at hand. The first is a prelude to and then the Rape itself along with a diversion into the Japanese mentality that led to it. After this, Chang looks at the event as viewed from outside Asia as well as the aftermath on personal and geopolitical levels.

In July of 1937 Japanese troops stationed in the Chinese city of Tientsin took gunfire one night while training near the Marco Polo Bridge. The next morning of the soldiers was missing from roll call. This incident escalated and led to a full-scale invasion of China. Thus began the Second Sino-Japanese War. The battle for Shanghai lasted a few months before the Japanese ultimately retained control in November. From there the armies marched to Nanking, the capital of the Republic of China and home to 1+ million people. With the Japanese advancing, many fled the city but there were still some 600,000-700,000 people there when the Japanese assault started on 9 December. By the 13th, Nanking had fallen and the unthinkable began.

What the Japanese did to the people in Nanking would have made Genghis Khan proud. Prisoners of war could not be fed or housed so they were killed. Citizens were shot in the back indiscriminately. And this is just the beginning because the savagery of the Japanese army knew no bounds. Chinese men were strung up alive and used for bayonet practice. Some were nailed to boards and run over by tanks. Others were buried or burned alive, often after having had their noses and ears hacked off. A killing contest between two soldiers made it into at least one Japanese newspaper.

The women in Nanking suffered just as much as the men. It is estimated that some 20,000-80,000 females were raped. From young girls to old women, no age group was spared. Some of them were so brutally gang raped that they died from the assaults. Those who refused sex were often killed. And as the story of one Mrs. Hsia, illustrates, women were often killed after having been raped. Mrs. Hsia received a bayonet in the chest when the Japanese soldiers were done with her and a perfume bottle was shoved into her vagina. The same fate befell her teenage daughters while a baby was simply killed by bayonet.

While I knew of the Rape, one thing I didn't know was that, amidst the carnage, there was a safety zone set up by Western businessmen, clergy, et al in the center of Nanking. It sheltered tens of thousands of Chinese and the book profiles a trio of Westerners who bravely helped whomever they could. Surprisingly, one of them, John Rabe, was a Nazi. Also profiled are two Americans, surgeon Robert Wilson and Wilhelmina Vautrin, a missionary. Their stories have them confronting Japanese soldiers to save the lives of the Chinese who sought shelter in the zone. Wilson worked for hours on end to administer care to the wounded. Their diaries chronicle the horrors they witnessed and became important tools to counter Japanese claims that Rape never happened or was greatly exaggerated.

Almost as soon as the Rape had petered out, reports of it began to leak to the West and the Japanese began a propaganda campaign to cover up what they had done. Reporter George Fitch risked his life to smuggle out 16mm film of the Rape while the Japanese gussied up small sections of the city and held it up as an example of how well they had treated the Chinese and the city.

After the war ended the Tokyo War Crimes Trial began in 1946 and, while it would bring a measure of justice to the survivors in Nanking, it was not a complete victory. Guilty verdicts were handed down for some military officers and they paid the ultimate price, but the terms of surrender for Japan with the United States meant that neither Emperor Hirohito nor any of the royal family would be tried for war crimes.

The final chapters show the further indignities foisted on the survivors of the Rape of Nanking. Many of the Chinese survivors fell into poverty and never got out of it. The Westerners who are profiled suffered from extreme mental anguish and had to deal with an incredulous public. Rabe, for his part, fell out of favor with the Nazis and died a pauper. But perhaps the greatest indignity comes from the many Japanese people, from politicians and academics on down the line, who deny that the Rape of Nanking ever happened. The book was published in 1997 and at that time there were still men in power in Japan who would gainsay despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

The Rape of Nanking was a subject near and dear to Iris Chang's heart. (She died in 2004.) This certainly doesn't make this book unreliable but she does tend to favor the larger estimates of death tolls and the like. She also advocates the idea that the Emperor and other royalty knew of the atrocities but did nothing to stop them. This would seem to be little more than guesswork. While I'll leave it to historians to argue the numbers and lay odds on whether Hirohito knew about what his armies were doing in Nanking, Chang surely did a great service by writing a book for the layreader on this topic.

I appreciated how she asks her readers to enlarge their understanding of World War II. In the opening paragraph Chang addresses the notion of exactly when the war began. For Americans, she says, it was with Pearl Harbor. For Europeans, it was the German invasion of Poland. But to Asians it was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. This is a very simple yet effective way to introduce the idea of differing perspectives which is so important in the story here. The Japanese felt themselves to be a master race while the Chinese were sub-human; Americans had to deal with political vs. moral perspectives; many Americans couldn't believe that the Rape had occurred which spurred the organizers of the safety zone to act, etc.

So why did the Rape of Nanking fade into relative obscurity? It's a tough question and Chang offers various answers. For one, the American government tried to juggle moral outrage for the crimes and a desire to rehabilitate Japan after the war. The Tokyo War Crimes Trials were low-key when contrasted with the Nuremberg Trials. The U.S. kept Hirohito in power and shielded him from prosecution in order to get Japan on its feet more quickly. Another reason was the communist takeover of China which cut off the survivors of Nanking from the outside world and the outside world from any historical documentation regarding the events. Books have been written about the incident, Japanese officers were tried and found guilty but there were perhaps too few books and too little attention paid to the trials for the Rape of Nanking to enter American consciousness the way something like the Holocaust did. Chang doesn't explain why Winston Churchill and others gloss over or omit the Rape from their histories of World War II. Perhaps they don't consider the event to have been a part of the war – it was part of an intra-Asian conflict that is more of a prelude than an actual battle in the war itself. I wouldn't doubt that recognition of it faded in America because it did not involve many Americans and pre-dated America's entry into the conflict.

The Rape of Nanking may have its flaws as a history but it does tell the story of a rather forgotten episode of World War II. I can imagine that, at the time of its publication, it must have stood out in contrast to Stephen Ambrose's barrage of books as a stark reminder that there was more to WWII than D-Day. And this, I think, is the book's real triumph. It tells a story about World War II for the layreader that isn't about the "Greatest Generation" fighting evil on a battlefield. It's not Anglo-centric and the heroes aren't trained soldiers dying for their country but civilians taking a stand for humanity.

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|| Palmer, 1:46 PM


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