on honouring the dead

I was watching City of Life and Death recently, a rather grim movie about the Nanjing Massacre. It’s a powerful piece, shot entirely in black and white, like an old set of photos come to life. One particularly disturbing scene has one of the protagonists, a Japanese soldier, march a group of Chinese POWs to their deaths, and as they trudge along the man watches in increasingly numbed horror as his comrades unleash absolute evil on civilians in the streets: firing squads, severed heads hanging from trees, young girls tied up and frogmarched by rough soldiers, a dead young woman sprawled on the ground, naked and bruised, with a noose around her neck.

The climax of the scene has the Japanese soldiers murder their hapless prisoners, shooting, bayoneting, burning and burying alive hundreds of young men. The Chinese prisoners on the whole face their ends silently, but one thing rankled: one group of prisoners (their leader conspicuously handsome in a sea of bedraggled and scarred faces) is marched to the execution ground, the avenue lined with glaring Japanese soldiers clutching their rifles as the soundtrack plays a steady, slow drumbeat. The men reach the execution ground, there is silence for a moment, but all of a sudden one man shouts that China will prevail; his cry is picked up by his comrades until the whole crowd is shouting “long live China, long live China!” Then the machineguns stutter and the screen fades to black.

This is deeply disrespectful to the dead.


I have pored over accounts of the massacre and nowhere have I found any indication that the murdered Chinese POWs went down with the name of China on their lips. On the contrary the firsthand accounts portray the Chinese soldiers as broken, silent men, almost meek as they went to their deaths. They’d been betrayed by an incompetent leadership, some of them had even tried to betray the civilians they were tasked to protect, and they had suffered days of horror and confusion before they were murdered in cold blood.

Granted, many of the firsthand accounts were written by Japanese military personnel at the scene (one has to filter their insights through the lens of their utter contempt for Chinese people in general), but the brokenness of the Chinese and the quick collapse of their resistance is no fabrication, and in any case the image of a silent POWs being gunned down is not inconsistent with the behaviour of fighting men: few soldiers go down thinking of king and country. A soldier loves few things, save his family, and if he’s lucky, his comrades. Many die quietly, either in stoic or numbed silence. And even Japanese soldiers, known for their ultra-nationalistic fanaticism, were observed mewling for their mothers as they lay dying. And this is not to belittle them – that’s just what war does to people. It takes away everything: life, dignity, reason.

So the Chinese POWs died like men: broken, fallible, terrified, desperate men – real men. And we must remember this because war is fought by such men and women. War is not fought and won by heroic patriots, it is done so by inconsistent, fallible, changeable, and often cowardly men and women of varying degrees of competence and reliability – it is a sad truth but is is also an astounding one. That war makes regular people achieve things both great and terrible in the same breath.

But we also remember the war because it did horrible things to men and women – real men and women. When the director of City made the decision to show these Chinese POWs sing the praises of their country as they died, whether he knew it or not he betrayed their memory. He turned flesh-and-blood men who had been robbed of all hope and dignity as they faced their final moments, and turned them into robots who love China. That is no dignity for the dead, and it is no dignity for their final moments. How afraid were they? Were they thinking of home – of wives, children, parents? Were they cursing the gods? As far as the the film is concerned, this is less important than their love for their country. (This is disconcertingly similar to Mao’s policy on Nanjing – he was conspicuously silent about it during his reign, and there is evidence that he has gone on record to thank the Japanese authorities for their role in the war, bleeding the Kuomintang white and granting the communists their eventual victory).

So we need to stop abusing the dead. We need to stop exhuming them to be used as puppets. The ghosts of Nanjing have known no peace even after all these years: the Japanese committed absolute evil against them, but even after all these years no one has laid the ghosts to rest. We need to acknowledge the dead for who they were – terrified, desperate people who died for little good reason. Then we’d give the dead their due, and moreover learn their lesson: that war takes away not only life and dignity but reason itself; there is often no glory or even logic in why and how men and women are killed in war (think of the Allied POWs and Korean slave labourers caught up in the bombing of Nagasaki – what horrors were they subjected to before they were finally taken, just days before the end of the war?). Forget the flags, forget the nationalism; war takes and destroys, humiliates, horrifies and kills, and defies most attempts to establish sense or justice.

That is the horror of war. To forget that horror is to rob the dead of their due, and the survivors of their courage. To willfully forget that horror is to make it that much easier for it to find us again.

Looking at today’s headlines suggests that we like to forget. And people are dying.

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