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The first time I heard of the dreadful events described in The Rape of Nanking was from Flora, our Shanghai guide, during a tour of China in 2003. The intensity of her emotions about the incident paralleled those of holocaust survivors I’d met concerning the German concentration camps, and I wondered that I knew nothing of what was apparently one of world’s historic slaughters.  We continued to Thailand on the same trip and learned from Thai people of the animosity that remains sixty years later against the Japanese for atrocities committed there. We knew, of course, a bit more about that situation because of the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. However, Nanking had no Alec Guiness to spread the word, and history, for reasons I’ll discuss in the next piece when I get to the book itself, has paid little attention to Nanking.

Among eeriest feelings I’ve ever experienced was eating a delicious meal in a floating restaurant beneath that famous bridge, a bridge that has now become a tourist attraction to the extent that crews were busy setting up for a light show later the same evening of our dinner. I’m rather glad we missed the celebration.  After a somber walk across the bridge, a tearful tour of the restored bamboo barracks (now maintained by Buddhist monks) full of photos of starved and suffering prisoners, and a perusal of the gravesites of troops who died in the forced-labor camp (most of the graves were U.K. soldiers, who bore the brunt of the savagery. The bodies of U.S. soldiers were nearly all brought back to the States.) our supper seemed nearly sacrilegious in itself.

During this trip, I began to piece together fragments of experience and knowledge that lent context and wholeness to my thoughts about the obscure ways we reconstruct the story of our past. To paraphrase Thornton Wilder’s fortune teller in The Skin of Our Teeth,  “Telling the future? Nothing easier. But to tell the past. There’s something inscrutable indeed.”

I recall walking into a crowded room in Dwinelle Hall on the University of California campus one evening. The occasion was an appearance by the Greek ambassador to the U.N., and I had such a casual interest that I don’t remember why I went. From the moment the speaker appeared the room was filled with stomping, yelling, fist-waving  protesters who effectively canceled the event. The eruption mystified me. Why were all these people so red-faced and disturbed? Why was I so unable to connect with their passions? As it turned out, the immediate issue was Cyprus, but I discovered to my embarrassment that I didn’t know anything about the animosity between Turks and Greeks, which is one of the iconic disputes of history, and I had little intellectual and no emotional connection to it. I was reminded of that evening in our trip to Greece last year when I saw an Icon painting in a chapel of St. George on Mykonos which represented that heroic knight slaying not a dragon, but a Turk.

More immediate to the Nanking situation was an incident during my tenure as vice-principal at the Berkeley Adult School when we were observing what Americans have come to call the “Day of Remembrance,” an annual observance of our government’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII.   A large part of that school’s mission is teaching English to immigrants, and a great number of our students were Chinese. When Japanese speakers appeared in these ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms to talk about their experiences in the internment camps, the Chinese walked out. They didn’t see the speakers as persecuted Japanese-Americans; they saw oppressors and murderers of their people. Our well-intentioned attempts to heal one wound tore the scabs off the wounds of others of whose pain we were ignorant.

Thus do we carry our hatreds and our ignorance through our lives and our world, and in our attempts to do good, the physician’s motto “do no harm” sometimes seems the best we can hope to accomplish.

Santayana’s aphorism “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it” has become a mantra to the point of cliche whenever we speak of historical horrors. Chang uses it  as a preface to her book. The cliche that often follows is that we must continue to tell these stories so that “this will never happen again.” The truth is, though, that it has happened again. Over and over. It happened in Armenia, in the Gulag, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and in other places I haven’t listed and/or don’t know about. And it is happening as I write in Sudan/Darfur. And there are Al Quaeda types who would love to get on the list but haven’t quite made the grade yet.

Like children from abusive families of drunks and addicts, who go on to create new abusive and addicted families, we seem compelled to find reasons to wipe out wholesale those whom we don’t like or with whom we disagree. No matter how well we know the outcomes of such acts in the past. Of course, we can’t know how many incidents (or abusive families) have been avoided because of heightened awareness education has created, but it is clear that knowledge is not a sure cure for destructive behavior on either a societal or a personal level. If it were, all the driver education, drug education, and sex education in schools would have wiped out unwanted teen-age reckless driving, adolescent substance abuse, and unwanted pregnancies.

So, what do you do? Quit? Of course not. You keep going after evil, hoping you’re preventing at least some of it, promoting good, and never really knowing to what extent you’re succeeding. But you don’t lie, pretending that knowing past evils prevents future ones or that you’re keeping “from ever happening again” what’s already happened again.  We seem compelled to think we get to be clear about what we’re doing and how it’s going to turn out, when in fact who we are and what we’re about (even, often, our intent) is always a mystery, and we’d do better to accept the mystery than to deceive ourselves.

And so ends part 1. Next, Iris Chang and her monumental book.


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