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The price of her crusade
(Nov. 13, 2004) Note: This column won honorable mention in on-line commentary in the Los Angeles Press Club Awards for 2005.

       Poor, poor Iris Chang.
        I have often observed that if the brain had no filters, and we could exactly understand the totality of human evil and stupidity---all at once---we would promptly commit suicide.
        This, apparently, is what happened last week to poor 36-year-old Iris Chang. No more filters. She broke them down. She barraged her brain with the ugliest information about the ugliest acts of human beings until the filters burned out.
        But she died a hero.
        Chang wrote "The Rape of Nanking," published in 1997, which is as unyielding and sickeningly specific account of "man's inhumanity to man" as ever has been written. The author had heard tales of Japanese army "atrocities," as such things are conveniently and almost benignly labeled, from her parents, who had fled China to ultimately became research scientists in America. They never forgot the stories they had heard about the Japanese attack on Nanking in December, 1937.
        Perhaps unfortunately, they never let their daughter forget, either.
        While in grade school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Chang went to the library in search of information about this orgy of wickedness: the sex torture of women, dismemberment of babies, beheadings of men, and the endlessly---and gleefully--- imaginative ways Japanese soldiers slaughtered Chinese civilians. She found absolutely nothing.
        "That struck me as odd," Chang wrote in the introduction of her book, years later."If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents insisted, then why hadn't someone written a book about it?"
        Twenty years later, Iris Chang did.


        She was a journalist, not a historian or scholar. This was not the work of an academic pursuing a niche, but of an intelligent, sentient, decent human being who was so frightened by what she learned that she felt an obligation to report the information to the world.
        More historians should take a cue from her. Where too many history books tend to render the past something distant and dessicated; fodder for analysis, Chang's pages ran with the blood and disemboweled guts of China's victims. Where so many texts speak dispassionately of deaths, dates, places, "agonies," "suffering," Chang exploited graphic narrative histories available in diaries, films, and photographs of first-hand witnesses. Histories that had somehow never been made public before.
        "Why had no other American author," she asked in her book, "exploited this rich lode of primary source material to write a nonfiction book or even a dissertation exclusively devoted to the massacre?"
        The answer lay in the art, the science, the game of rendering everything just detached enough; the means by which all human events and misdeeds are clinically commodified in order to be dealt with, in terms of policy and expedience. The same  mechanism that has most recently turned 100,000-plus dead innocent Iraqis into something called "collateral damage". . .
        After WWII, the two rival governments of China were competing for Japanese trade, so there would be no rubbing Japan's nose in Nanking. The U.S., of course, found considerable strategic value in controlling Japan's future, what with mainland China under Mao's communists. . .
        So 300,000 hideously tortured and murdered civilians and soldiers were swept under history's rug.
        Until Chang's book.
        That's all it took. One outraged human being with a little drive.
        But why bring up The Rape of Nanking at all? What good could it do? Why not leave such malignant past behind? Anyone who must ask such a question is precisely the reason this book was written. As Chang said in interviews, all human beings have the capability of committing almost unimaginably cruel acts. The only proof against such acts is their acknowledgement and condemnation, and the concurrent, implicit exalting of compassion.
        Chang knew this, and became obsessed, even possessed, by it. In her book, she notes the merciful human penchant for offering comfort to the dying, say, as with someone fatally injured in an accident who is kept warm by a stranger's coat. She related her sheer asonishment at the absence of such humanity in Nanking:
        . . .those who had brought about these deaths could also degrade the victims and force them to expire in maximum pain and humiliation. I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the world to remember it.
        So she did. She forced the world to remember it.
       And well we might remember Chang's lessons today. Wanton, fiendish deeds of the kind loosed in war are habitually hidden away under flags and claims of morality. For Japan, they were a bayonet through a vagina, men forced to rape their mothers before they were beheaded, screaming children---even babies---cut into quarters. In Iraq today, the same demon has been loosed, what with innocent civilians kidnapped and beheaded, prisoners subjected to sexual degradation by gleeful American men and women, well-trained professional soldiers who relate to killing as they do to video games. Here are quotes from U.S. soldiers about killing in Iraq from a recent article in the Daily Telegraph:
        "You guys get to do all the fun stuff. . .It's like a video game. I got my kills. . .I just love my job. . .We've taken small arms fire here all day. . .It just sounds like popcorn going off."
        No, soldiers cannot be faulted for doing their jobs. But the stuff of Nanking is ever-lurking in their work, and the first hints of it are in phrases like "you guys get to do all the fun stuff."
        Chang knew this, perhaps better than anyone, and she suffered for it. The price of her crusade: the woman could not get this "reversion in social evolution" out of her mind. She lived in relentless incredulity at humanity's capacity for evil. Her office, as a friend described upon her passing, was a shrine to human suffering. She was furious over Japan's continued refusal (to this day!) to apologize for the Rape of Nanking, yet she was heartened by average Japanese citizens' interest in learning about it. She wrote other books, including a history of the Chinese in America, but it was the victims of Nanking---people she had never met, had no relationship with---that stayed with her, walked with her.
        The news reports say that about five months ago, while researching a book about U.S. soldiers imprisoned and tortured by Japan, she had a "breakdown" and went into a "clinical depression" that culminated with a single gunshot wound in her car on a country road in Northern California.
        A shot that might as well have been fired by the maniacs of war.

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