Saturday, September 13, 2008

Speaking of Massacres...

We visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial (the actual name is much longer, much more unwieldy) last weekend. This had been my second visit, the last being in spring of 2006.

The spot was chosen carefully--the museum lies atop a mass burial site used by Japanese troops to dispose of some grisly Chinese remains. I remembered that part of the memorial quite well: there just aren't so many places in the world where you can come face to face with a moldering pile of massacred skeletons. Literally inches between the skin of your nose and a rictus smile of polished bone.

The new setup seems well-designed, reminiscent of Yad Vashem or the Vietnam War Memorial. The enclosure is a barren sea of gravel, baking under the sun. That alone would make most visitors begin to feel uncomfortable (which might be the point). If that didn't get the point across, the entry point through a jagged, cleaved boulder, or the burnt remnants of dead trees standing vigil near the excavated skeletons would probably do the trick. A massive statue dismembered into two parts, (another part I remembered well from my last visit) a hand clawing up from beneath the gravel, and a despairing woman's face certainly make one wonder whether a race of giants was also subject to Japanese torments. Also, some aspects--like the aforementioned trees and boulder, or a large bell--actually seem more mysterious than germane.

The walk to the entrance has been transformed, with a serene stream passing beneath horrific statues depicting: a raped woman holding her dead baby son; an old man reaching out in a physically-impossible bent postures with zombie-like hands clawing at the distance, a dead baby frozen to its dead mother's chest by a mixture of blood, milk, and tears; a teacher holding the falling body of his ghostly wife, etc. Captions explain, somewhat poetically, each episode of the horrors contained within the museum.

A bell tolls for the dead, as one enters the museum proper. Walls are duly inscribed with the names, some substituted with nicknames when the proper name is not known (Xiao Mao-mao, translated as little fur-fur, for example, is a suitable Chinese endearment for a baby boy). A drop of water falls into a pool every seven seconds (I think) to demonstrate the rate of loss of life during the period of Japanese occupation of Nanjing. A total of around 300,000 dead is claimed, some 16,000 of which are completely verifiable according to research recently compiled and released by the Chinese government.

The museum has an amazing collection, and does a very good job of taking its visitors through the immediate prelude to war, onslaught of Japanese aggression in and around Nanjing and Shanghai, the battle to capture Nanjing, a variety of Japanese war propaganda (much of it thoughtfully provided by the Japanese themselves, particularly the Sino-Japanese Peace Society), the occupation, the various horrors of that occupation--including special sections devoted to rape, pillage, arson, Chinese shot, Chinese burned, Chinese drowned, Chinese sliced by samurai swords, and a wax reenactment of a typical Chinese home with about ten various members of the family lying dead in various positions within--the foreign residents who set up an international safety zone for protecting Chinese refuges, the puppet regime, and the post-war attempts at truth and reconciliation on the matter of the Nanjing massacre*.

(*Note: some people refer to this as 'the Rape of Nanking' which seems like a typical news headline manner of description, and although rape is a terrible thing in itself, the name perhaps doesn't address the many other atrocities that occurred.)

Then--and at this point the museum was closing, so the security guards were not-too-subtly prodding the remaining visitors along--the museum recounts the entire history of Japanese aggression in China during WWII. That will be interesting to explore at another point in time (the museum is now free of charge, so I doubtlessly will visit again at some point), but didn't seem like a very good museum design choice, considering that most visitors are probably physically and emotionally exhausted by the time they get to that portion of the museum.

Overall a memorial well suited to truth and reconciliation. There was even a brief wall at the end of the museum detailing recent peaceful relations between the PRC and Japan.

This sort of museum--intentionally--puts one in a reflective mood. But my reflections may be somewhat controversial to many, including Japanese, Americans, Chinese, Turks, and Kurds. The question it puts in my mind is the unfolding, equal-opportunity nature of atrocity. Every human may find his or herself capable of atrocity. Situations change over the centuries, and an aggrieved people will suddenly find themselves in an opportune position to exact retribution, to ethnically 'cleanse' lands they feel are rightfully theirs, to right wrongs with further wrongs, or just to set aside the burden of compassionate humanity and indulge in an atavistic surge of rage, greed, or lust. Lest readers assume that I'm pointing fingers here, lets start with the US. We certainly have had our moments, in gifting small-pox blankets upon the natives of our beautiful land, in incinerating two Japanese cities (surely including vast numbers of civilians) rather than sacrificing committed soldiers, in the numerically smaller tragedies and travesties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

So the Japanese have memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to commemorate the wrong done to them. The Chinese have this memorial to commemorate the wrong done to them. Perhaps the stateless Tibetans, Tatars, and Uighurs have meager memorials to the injustices done to them, lost among the sands of remote deserts or amongst the prayer flags strewn atop the Himalayan peaks. The Jews have Yad Vashem, yet they continue the madness of allowing criminal settlers to occupy Palestinian land and their security establishment to partition Palestinian villages and olive groves. The Armenians point their fingers at the Turks, and the Turks point their fingers at the Armenians. The Kurds helped to cleanse Armenians from eastern Anatolia, but their own identity has been until recently criminalized in those same parts. As my Kurdish friend Dino once stated to me, "The Turks like to kill. I don't know why." But in Iraq, the Kurds are also busy cleansing Turkomen and Yazidi from Kirkuk. Modern day Christians like to feel aggrieved in remembrance of 9/11 terrorist plots. Modern day Muslims still feel aggrieved by the rape and pillage they experienced at Christian hands during the crusades.

These are but a few examples, and I can already imagine the haranguing I might receive from Turkish, Kurdish, and Chinese friends for even stating this comparison. There is a basic hypocrisy inherent in our inability to recognize the genocidal impulse as a basic human impulse shared by all races, religions, creeds, and nationalities of man. Certainly every nation or ethnicity that has found itself in a position of strength has abused that position with any number of atrocities, merely a macrocosm to the corruption power accomplishes as well with individual people. Can there be such a thing as a great nation or great people, whose shining city was not built upon a hill of broken bones and angry ghosts? I've always felt that this is exactly the reason why modern day horror stories always make a strong tie between guilt and fright. The shambling form of Samara, faceless behind her long black tresses, confronts us with the knowledge that all of us were born through the forgotten acts of treachery and atrocity of our ancestors. History may have been written by those of us who survived off the flesh of our fellows during the hard times, the lean times, but the guilt of it cannot be shaken. We all own this.

The second question engendered in my mind by the unsymmetrical halls of Nanjing's memorial: why should atrocity be controversial? Certainly it is horrible, and should be protested, should be ended and never again revisited by the humanity. But I wonder sometimes, why we put such special emphasis on the various genocides and massacres of the World War era. There is nothing particularly special about them, when ranked against the entire human history of civilizations.

Why should there not, for example, be memorials to the numerous cities sacked, raped, and burned to the ground... multiple times, no less... by such luminaries as Julius Caesar, Timurlane, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, et al. Is this just the fading effect that history has on our memories? If you go back far enough, even the currently peaceable Tibetans were playing polo with the severed heads of their enemies. Rape and pillage are mentioned numberless times in the histories of all world civilizations, and genocide crops up fairly often as well, but why do these atrocities bear special mention when Hitler, Stalin, or various Japanese generals are at the head of the dirty deed rather than some forgotten Babylonian, Hittite, or Qin dynasty general?

Do we really have such a high opinion of 'modern man' that we would assume ourselves incapable of the basest human traits? Have we, by inventing light bulbs and Morse code and calculators that fit in one's pocket, somehow gone through some miraculous mutation that puts us above the obscenities seemingly hard-coded into our behavior? I think this is an utterly unrealistic lesson to derive from human history. Razed to the ground, raped into submission, enslaved generation upon generation, tortured or flayed or crucified when submission could not be had by any other means. These are descriptions of average towns and cities throughout the last 7,000 + years of human history that happened to get in the way of bored military men and spoiled god-kings. Atrocity, in this sense, is a banality. Taboo, but nonetheless a common thing.

Our modernity--our time in space, technological progress, and social development--no more than our religion, credo, nationality, or ethnicity, does not put us past the nightmares we are all capable of inflicting on the world. I don't question the need to memorialize horrors of modern times, or the need to put a stop to the horrors that are ongoing. I do think our denial of the universal nature of abomination is just as dangerous as would be forgetting the facts and origins of abomination. Not only is it petty and self-serving to trivialize the tragedies experienced by our rivals and enemies, but it is an extremely dangerous habit in such an overpopulated and overly weaponized world.

The memorial of our worst tragedies must also be a reminder of our worst capabilities, lest it become little more than a score-sheet from which to foster the atrocities of tomorrow.

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