The Enemy of Comfort

By Mills, Nicolaus | The American Prospect, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Enemy of Comfort


Mills, Nicolaus, The American Prospect


A WEEK AFTER THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, IRIS Chang, the much-acclaimed author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was found dead in her car on a highway just south of Los Gatos, California. Before shooting herself, Chang left a carefully written suicide note at her home in San Jose and made sure that her body would be discovered by the police rather than by her husband or her 2-year-old son.

The newspaper stories that followed made a point of noting Chang's age--she was just 36--and explaining the success of the most important of her three books, The Rape of Nanking, which sold more than a half-million copies in America alone. But largely missing from the accounts of Chang's death were a serious assessment of her work and a recognition of the moral and intellectual vacuum her death leaves. In a world in which most stories on massacre and genocide have the drama of war reportage, Chang, whose grandparents fled the eastern Chinese city of Nanking as the violence there was beginning in 1937, never forgot that her subjects were the vanquished and the dead.

In choosing to write on the siege of Nanking by the Japanese--later estimated to have been responsible for more than 260,000 deaths--Chang selected a subject that had long been buried in Japan and even in the West. At the end of World War II, the Japanese naturally chose to emphasize the suffering they experienced as a result of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and America, then committed to rebuilding Japan as a buffer to communist China, was content to let the war crimes of its new ally against its new enemy fade from sight.

So things stood--until Chang's book. Published on the 60th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, when she was 29, it both exposed the silence surrounding what happened at Nanking and opened up the question of how history is taught in Japanese schools, where the atrocities Japan committed during World War II are played down and the killing of thousands of Chinese at Nanking remains an "incident."

But at the heart of The Rape of Nanking was Chang's fascination with the politics of rescue--her assessment of what those who in 1937 were still free to act did to save Chinese citizens, and how many of these rescuers, particularly Minnie Vautrin, an American school teacher, and John Rabe, a German businessman, were pushed to the edge. …

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