On December 13, 1937 soldiers from the Imperial Japanese Army took the city of Nanjing and began a campaign of terror, pillage, murder, and rape that lasted nearly one month.
The final body count may never be known. Some Japanese historians claim that “as few as” 50,000 people died. Chinese historians place the number closer to 300,000. The International War Crimes Tribunal set the total number of casualties at 200,000. 50,000 or 500,000…at some point what difference does it make? World War II was a savage, bloody conflict. No one army or nation had a monopoly on atrocities. The Holocaust, the Nanjing Massacre, the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the dropping of two atomic weapons are remembered to this day because it should be impossible to forget the systematic genocide of an entire people or those acts of war in which thousands of civilians lost their lives, but there were also countless smaller acts of cruelty and brutality done by all sides and armies. That is the nature of war.
In his book War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, historian John Dower argues that the use of mass media to dehumanize the “enemy” made such acts almost inevitable and “an obsession with extermination on both sides.” Dower is referring specifically to American and Japanese propaganda depicting the war as a great battle between the forces of civilization and humanity against inhuman foes. The same could be said for Japanese attitudes toward the Chinese as well.
The Nanjing Massacre was particularly horrifying because of the wanton destruction of a city left to fend for itself. The government had fled two weeks earlier leaving instructions to the remaining units to hold the city at all costs. When the gates fell, there was no plan for evacuation, there was only chaos and bloodshed. Looting. Pillaging. Rape and murder. For weeks, the terrified residents of Nanjing lived through a hell unimaginable outside of the worst nightmare.
In Nanjing there is a memorial to the victims of the massacre which I highly recommend. I’ve taken students there for many years. What is special about the memorial is that the powers-that-be mercifully went easy on the propaganda*, letting art exhibits, photographs, old newspaper clippings, artifacts and, yes, bodies do the talking. It is a powerful exhibition of human cruelty.
The first hall you enter is almost entirely black, except for a single picture projected against a back wall. Every 12 seconds there is the sound of a single drop of water and the picture changes. According to Chinese figures, every 12 seconds a person lost their life at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. The pictures are those who died. The faces stare back at you through the darkness of the hall and over seven decades of history. At times like this, arguing over large round numbers seems like a macabre parlor game.
CCTV this week was doing its best to paint the Japanese soldiers (and their descendants) as cruel and inhuman beasts of men. There was the usual nonsense about the 祖国 “The Motherland” and patriotism and on and on.
But the takeaway from this week’s anniversary is not to demonize the descendants of those who committed these atrocities, or to appropriate such a senseless tragedy for cheap political gain, but the importance of remembering those who perished and to never forget that so long as there are armies marching on cities, senseless deaths will follow.
*At least until the very end when a placard near the exit full of ill-advised patriotic blather threatens to undo the solemnity of the memorial.