The Memory Hole

by Kenneth Champeon, May 26, 2005 | Destinations: China / Nanjing

Anyone who has dabbled in the reading or writing of history can only be chilled to the bone by the closing scenes of Orwell's 1984, in which the Inner Party operative O'Brien convinces a hapless Winston Smith that historical truth is, to put it mildly, relative. Asks O'Brien:

"Then where does the past exist, if at all?" "In records. It is written down." "In records. And--?" "In the mind. In human memories." "In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?"

By now an enfeebled skeleton, Winston can only wag his skull in acquiescence. And by the logic of a Party slogan, the Party therefore controls the future, all time, and everything. At best truth is merely the sum of competing propaganda; at worst it is what the Party says it is.

Orwell had reason to be pessimistic aside from the fact that he was slowly dying of tuberculosis amidst the dreary conditions of postwar England. He had seen propaganda raised, quite literally, to the status of an art - or art degraded to the status of propaganda. It is all very well to recall Santayana's maxim concerning the fate of those who know no history. But what about those who know a "history" consisting only of state-sponsored fabrications? Might they be condemned not to repeat history but to worsen it?

Usually the capital-H Holocaust is cited as the "never again" event par excellence. Not because of the death toll: far more were killed by Stalin or by the colonizers of America or the Congo. The Holocaust horrifies because it was so akin to an assembly line. The Jews were murdered like so many stray cats. And the result, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his essay "Letter to Jerry Andrzejewski", was a demystification of death: "young men in perfectly clean uniforms can then shoot people while gnawing on a ham sandwich." Murder becomes a pragmatic task or a tedious chore, like balancing a budget or taking out the trash. And to kill a man using a laser-guided missile or poison gas is seen as somehow more humane than hanging or beheading him. For a man to kill a man is savage. For a machine to intermediate is at once civilized and monstrous.

"In December 1937," says the blurb on the back of Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, "the Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking. Within weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered - a death toll exceeding that of the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined." Study this closely, O children of Orwell. Why mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Unless it is to suggest that the atomic blasts were perhaps justified by a difference of numbers and method? A more even-handed blurb might look like this:

"Within weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than 300,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers were instantly vaporized or subsequently died from bomb-related causes."

In the new version, the mention of Hiroshima and Nagasaki becomes irrelevant. In any case, there is something obsessive and macabre about such accounting. Only a half-dead person could engage in it for any length of time, especially if the purpose is to justify or compare. But to be fair to Chang, she is ecumenical: "No race or culture," she says, "has a monopoly on wartime cruelty."

A la mode, one might say, the Chinese were dismembered, became the victims of biological and chemical warfare, and even underwent Nazi-style scientific experiments. For the sake of the weak of stomach, I'll defer to Chang for the exceedingly gory details.

But curiously, unlike the Nazis, the Japanese have paid next to nothing in reparations to the victims of Nanking, and scarce few perpetrators of the Rape were convicted of war crimes. How did they get away with it? For that matter, how did Truman and the Americans get away with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The answer to the second question is easy: America won the war: America is judge and not defendant. But following the war, Japan was enlisted as America's ally in the Cold War. It was transformed into a capitalist democracy to counter the Communist dictatorships on the Asian mainland, and its Okinawa was transformed into a "land-based aircraft carrier" for American troops. Thus the US could be expected to elide Japanese wartime atrocities. Movies about Pearl Harbor are admissible, of course, because they help to justify American intervention: the extermination of more than 300,000 Chinese did not.

Meanwhile, postwar China hoped to curry favor with Japan in order to benefit from its phenomenal economic progress. Thus China too could easily forget the recent unpleasantness. Add to this Japan's own interest in denying the past, and the result was (and is) a cover-up of horrendous proportions.

Ancient history, you say? Chang notes that as late as 1990 a prominent Japanese politician made a statement worthy of Orwell's O'Brien: "People say that the Japanese made a holocaust [in Nanking], but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese." And when the current Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi visited a monument to Japanese war dead, practically the whole of East Asia cried foul. Survivors of the Rape continue to eke out a living in China, many of them physically mutilated, emotionally scarred, forgotten.

But let us also consider the reasons for the appearance of Chang's book. Why now? Chinese dissidents became newly interested in the Rape of Nanking after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Yet as of 1994, says Chang, "no one had yet written a full-length narrative nonfiction book on the Rape of Nanking in English." Thus the book acts as a kind of protest of China's role in the cover-up, and the book's emergence reflects the growing power of Chinese dissidents.

There has also been a shift in the America's attitude toward Japan and its wartime victims. China's rapid economic growth and liberalization have caused America to overlook China's repellant human rights abuses. South Korea's development is even more impressive. Japan meanwhile has a growing reputation as an economic has-been. As these countries rise and Japan seems to fall, more accounts of Japanese imperialism can be expected to appear.

Chang suggests that Japan's WWII atrocities reduce its stature in the international community. That seems naive. Even current human rights abuses contribute little to the calculus of international relations: commercial concerns hold sway. And, at least for the time being, Japan is committed to pacifism: witness its reluctance to contribute to America's war in Afghanistan. One cannot go on flogging a dead horse when there are so many - too many - lively steeds to be corralled.

This is not to say that Nanking cannot instruct. Chang offers a few lessons. First is that the more concentrated the power of a state, the more likely it is for that state to act rashly. Dictatorships carry out holocausts; democracies generally do not. Indeed, no two democracies have ever waged war against each other. So even in times of war, it is dangerous and shortsighted to relinquish power to one man or one clique. In the short run, it may lead to more decisive action, but action that the populace may ultimately regret.

A second lesson is obvious, trite. One even tires of repeating it. Violence begets violence; hate begets hate. The soldiers responsible for the Rape had been subject to inconceivable humiliation by their superiors, and they transferred this humiliation to the Chinese - mere "pigs" in their eyes. Make a man despise himself and he can easily be made to despise others.

The Japanese were not the only ones furiously turning the wheel of Karma. Chang reminds the historically disadvantaged that the US-Japan conflict did not begin in 1941, but in 1853, when American Commander Matthew Perry

"sent two ships belching black smoke into Tokyo Bay - giving the people of Japan their first glimpse of metal-clad, steam-powered ships. Surrounding himself with some sixty to seventy aggressive-looking men armed with swords and pistols, Perry strode through the capital of the Shogun and demanded meetings with the highest-ranking officials in Japan."

Following this brash act of gunboat diplomacy, it is hardly surprising that Japan would so feverishly militarize. And the later American subjugation and colonization of the Philippines left Japan with little doubt about American ambitions in Asia. Chang even proposes that "if expansion westward to the Pacific Ocean was the manifest destiny of the nineteenth-century United States, then China was twentieth-century Japan's manifest destiny." But the Chinese proved to be more resilient than the pesky redskins. After all, China is an ancient civilization to which Japan owes much of its culture.

An unsettling question often arises in discussions of the capital-H Holocaust: why did the Jews go so passively to their deaths? Chang notes a similar passivity on the part of the Chinese of Nanking. Were they simply stunned? Overpowered? Naive? Fatalistic? A combination, perhaps. Chang laments that the Chinese were remarkably susceptible to Japanese propaganda, and that many of them fully believed that the Japanese would prove more efficient administrators than the Chinese Nationalists. And in some ways the Chinese were correct. But then fascists are always efficient. But it hardly matters if you've been executed.

On a lighter note, there was another parallel between the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking: each had its good guys. Chang relates the story of the "Oskar Schindler of China" - one John Rabe, a Nazi of all things, who did his utmost to protect the Chinese against Japanese rapine. Along with other Europeans and Americans, Rabe established the International Safety Zone, a kind of kennel for terrified Chinese. Sadly, Rabe's actions were potentially treasonous due to Germany's alliance with Japan. Rabe died in relative poverty and obscurity, as did many other heroes of the ISZ. But Nanking survivors still remember their benevolence, which Hollywood has not bothered to recall.

So there's some hope yet that Orwell's ahistorical dystopia may be avoided. That is, of course, if people shun 1984's "telescreens" in favor of what are traditionally known as "books." For there was something that the heroes of the ISZ had in common: they were voracious readers, and they kept records all their own.

- The End -

Review of Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, Penguin, 1998.

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