Increasingly, we humans are faced with acts that seem unexplainable. How, we ask, could the Nazi Holocaust, the genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, and most recently, the torture committed by United States troops at Abu Ghraib, have happened? With this in mind, I recently read Iris Chang’s disturbing account of yet another genocidal killing spree, that of Japanese troops against the residents of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, all of it detailed in Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (Basic Books, 1997). And the question that Chang poses in at least two places in her book is the one haunting us all these days: How could they do it? How could otherwise rational human beings lose all sense of respect and restraint in order to torture, humiliate, dismember, and violate in every way fellow human beings, and on such a grand scale? Chang offers not one but several answers to explain the events in Nanking—where as many as 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in a matter of weeks. Among them are the absolute deadliness of absolute power; the specific training which the Japanese military imposed on its soldiers, training them with exercises meant to instill killing instincts; the suppressed rage of those soldiers, themselves treated like dirt by their officers; the “frightening ease” with which all of us can witness and accept genocide as long as the danger is perceived to be far away. All these, and others, especially the training which portrays the enemy as “sub-human,” no doubt operate. But I think there is one more, a usually unspoken one, which relates to some recent thoughts of mine on betrayal (see the blogs, Traitors I and II).
I am referring to a sense one can get when reading about truly unspeakable acts—the vindictive manner with which Japanese soldiers cut off the heads of all Chinese, including women they had just savagely raped; the torture and brutality imposed on little children, pregnant mothers, helpless old people, none of whom could have possibly represented a threat—that more than the numbing of civilized behavior or empathy is at work, that some unspoken animus is at play here. It is as if the soldier, the perpetrator, is blaming his victims, blaming them for being what they are. There is the distinct sense in this, in all sadism perhaps, that the perpetrator is blaming the victim for being something disgusting, something humiliating. The soldier/torturer, that is, first puts the victim in a situation of complete powerlessness, and then blames him or her for being powerless. For groveling. For not standing up to defend himself, but rather begging for his life, demonstrating his willingness to submit to any humiliation in order to be spared.
And what we hear is the interior monologue of the torturer: you disgust me. You are beneath contempt, and therefore do not deserve to live. But why? we want to ask. What is so disgusting? And I think the answer is that you, as a victim, my victim, remind me of what I am, of what I am trying desperately not to be: completely vulnerable, a being who is a hair’s breadth away, always, from dying, from groveling in shit and humiliation myself. This, I think, is the deep fear that is raised by the sight of a completely helpless victim. And, at the same time, what is also raised is an exhilaration that I can, at least for the moment, rise above that horribly rejected condition by treating you as dirt. By destroying you, sending you back to that nothingness from which you came. That is to say, we, our conscious selves, always yearn to be invulnerable, always strive to position ourselves above the mess and perilous brevity of our existence, to see ourselves as somehow not the barely cobbled-together, watery beings we know we are. And the yearning runs on fear.
In a real way, I think, this fear is connected to the fear of reversion I’ve referred to in my ‘Traitor’ series. We all know we are mud and dirt and slime, disgusting from the point of view of so-called “civilization” where we do everything to mute and disguise that origin. We also all know that our determination to pretend to be substantial, permanent, solid, to make our civilized works permanent and solid, stems from our evanescence, from the paltry nature of what we are and how pitifully brief and shaky is our appearance here. Iris Chang refers to this several times in her book, when she comments again and again on the “thin veneer of civilization” that can vanish so easily and quickly in a genocide. And that is true. And we all know it. And it terrifies us, the knowledge that any of us, all of us, can so easily revert to a state of anarchy, powerlessness, shapelessness. And again, it is precisely that terror which is turned on the victim, turned into rage against the victim who reminds us of our terror. Of the imminence of our reversion to mud and slime and liquefaction.
This, then, is what I think lies at the heart of all this horror and brutality, this exultation in rape and dismemberment and torture and murder in the cruel fashion of which only humans are capable. ‘Don’t remind me of what I am. I hate you for reminding me of what I am. And therefore I will reduce you to the most abject piece of shit and trash imaginable.’ The Nazis did this constantly, routinely to the Jews in concentration camps. And, as Iris Chang demonstrates with chapter and verse, the Japanese in Nanking did this just as routinely. It wasn’t just killing soldiers or civilians who might be dangerous. It was humiliating them even after death. Most were dumped into the Yangtze River, which ran blood for weeks. But the most vivid depiction of what I am referring to occurred in the revolting story of the Japanese dumping the bodies of dead Chinese into pits—the pits which the Chinese had earlier dug in most roads in the vain hope that they could hinder the advance of Japanese tanks. The conquering Japanese responded with the genocidal cruelty which Nanking symbolizes: they filled the pits with Chinese bodies, some still alive, and took pleasure in running over these pits of piled-up bodies now functioning as dirt, with their tanks and trucks. Horror. But more than horror, this cruel inversion of decent burial turned the Chinese bodies into the deepest form of humiliation: ‘You are nothing but roadfill. Roadkill. Inanimate shapeless matter of the most worthless kind.’
Something more than the numbing of civilized behavior in war is needed to explain such horror. Something, I would submit, like what I have referred to above. Something that all of us, however well trained, ignore at our peril.