Fifty Shades of Black and White
On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army routed the larger in numbers but vastly inferior Chinese forces and captured the ancient city of Nanking. In the days that followed, they occupied the city and committed, on a grand scale, a series of acts so gruesome and bestial that the period is known as “The Rape of Nanking.”
Why the Japanese army acted the way they did is perhaps beyond comprehension. It occupies the same space as Hitler’s campaigns of extermination, Lenin and Stalin’s purges, and the killing fields in Cambodia. The critical thing to remember is that this isn’t just the mad vision of a single crazy person, but rather, to paraphrase Daniel Goldhagen, acts enabled by countless “willing executioners.”
What causes some to participate and others to resist is unknown. Surely, rational people recognize evil when they see it, but there can be a blurring of the lines when the “enemy” has been described as degraded and inferior. That’s exactly what happens during war--all sides use propaganda. Then, somehow, acts of violence, cruelty or even moral depravity can seem to be justifiable. Black and white merge into something opaque and unknowable.
Clearly, there are things that are simply wrong to do, no matter who is doing them. There are good people who will act under stress in ways that they would otherwise recoil from in normal times. And, even more stand by without protest, perhaps in silent acquiescence or agreement, perhaps simply paralyzed by fear. Fighting a war, killing, by definition, forces people to make moral choices about what they perceive, or are told to perceive, as a greater good. Many simply go along, living with the ambiguity of the situation, content to close their eyes and throw their lot with their side. It is hard to grasp what the ordinary Japanese soldier, garrisoning Nanking, must have felt. It is harder to believe that they could have felt anything.
Did the world know what was happening and simply stand by? Yes and no. There were a few journalists who, at stupendous personal risk, reported and filmed, and their dispatches filtered out to the press. Even more substantive were the heroic efforts by a number of foreign businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries, who formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created a safe area in the western quarter of the city. A German, John Rabe, selected because of his membership in the Nazi Party, led the Committee. Rabe’s efforts, and those of a literal handful of others, were nothing short of extraordinary. Mr. Rabe is credited with saving perhaps 250,000 Chinese lives, at times literally chasing Japanese soldiers away from his home within the Zone.
The picture of Rabe striding around, flashing his decorations and his swastikas, pulling soldiers away from their victims, while, at the same time writing to Hitler to complain (Hitler, the humanitarian?) is the type of thing that is hard to imagine. And yet, there is something about this story that seems so grainy-newsreel dated, and yet so contemporary. It makes the petty complaints, and the petty people who populate our political life so infinitesimally small that it takes your breath away.
The smart observers of what is going on in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, know it. They see the systemic dysfunction as a people failure, not a process one, and they look for ways to restore the center. There was an interesting suggestion by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post “Save America, Restore the Draft” that calls for two years of mandatory service for all men and women. Milbank notes that only 19% of the combined Senate and House are veterans, the lowest level since World War II (remember, we entered WWI late in the conflict.) Milbank goes on to say “It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9 percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago. Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a “cause greater than self,” and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they’ve turned politics into war.”
“Turning politics into war” is a phrase Milbank uses too easily, because fairly obviously, we are not shooting at each other. And, assuming that nobility of purpose is derived from military service may also be a stretch. But he is right on point on two things: The first is that working in socially and economically diverse groups forces people to reach out of their comfort zones to attain a common goal. The second is reinforcing the connection of the young to the community and the country.
One could argue the opposite. I doubt that the Germans or the Japanese lacked social cohesion or commitment to a national purpose. But, implicit in Milbank’s argument is the conviction that what we have here in America, after all the yelling, and the tugging, and the selfishness, is something of far greater value than just self-interest at the expense of the rest of the world.
Is that just narcissism? Why wouldn’t we act as others have, and be indifferent to life? We are, after all, the only country to use nuclear weapons, and we firebombed Dresden. I think the difference that Milbank perceives is something bigger in the human experience, a call to service, and a recognition of the costs of being insensate to the sounds of inhumanity. Work with others, even those with divergent experiences and views, and you come to value shared accomplishment.
Milbank is an optimist. The comments that followed his article were predictably partisan, many of them ugly. And even more crabbed and sour views, often in the guise of clever Thanksgiving snarkiness, emanated from the ideological echo chamber. Optimism doesn’t sell when the hot product of the month is vinegar.
Yet, I think Milbank is right in his optimism, if not his method, because he is relying on our moral compass. Even more broadly, he is relying on John Rabe’s moral compass, a basic humanity that allows one to be an enthusiastic Nazi in 1937, and a savior of countless thousands.
Rabe eventually returned to Germany, and was promptly interrogated by the Gestapo. Whether his letter ever reached Hitler is unknown. It was certainly unanswered. He struggled terribly, both during the war, and afterwards. Sick, unemployed or underemployed, he despaired of even feeding his family. When, in 1948, the survivors of Nanking heard of his circumstances, they took up a collection, and the Mayor personally traveled to Switzerland to purchase supplies for him.
One need not be perfect to do the right thing. There is black, and there is white, and there is a vast expanse in between. The Nazi John Rabe made that journey.
Surely, we can do the same.
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