This morning I gave one of those lectures I enjoy delivering because it wakes people up and reconnects me with my Sino-Japanese research: a survey of aerial bombing of civilian populations during World War II (1937-1945).
In the context of a class already primed for war crimes research studying the Rape of Nanking through the galvanizing lens of Iris Chang, it is important to broaden the scope of the inquiry, asking “Was there in fact a broader ‘East Asian Holocaust’ in the eight years after 1937?” Aerial bombing is clearly part of that picture.
And so we cycled through the obvious candidates: German bombing of London, Allied bombing of Dresden, American firebombing of Tokyo and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course I trotted out my friend’s anecdote of Slaughterhouse Five. I consider, then delete from my larynx-queue, the UN/US Air Force flooding North Korea with bombs for three years. But then I arrive at the example one the students have rarely heard of: the Japanese bombing of Chongqing/Chungking.
Japanese Bombers on the Way to Chongqing -- image from Lily Abegg, "China's Erneuerung" (Frankfurt: 1940)
This morning I was particularly enlivened by the task of explaining the notion of Chinese popular memory of the bombing of civilians during the Second World War. Armed with a laptop projector, I slid into the Huanqiiu Shibao site to illustrate. “There it was!” I thought, the Chinese site about Hiroshima as atrocity, with a few predictable comments from netizens (“They got bombed good.”)
And then, describing how the Huanqiu Shibao was so nationalistic and often so anti-Japanese, I thought we might dig up an image from this particular day — December 7 — from Chongqing, the city that suffered worst from Japanese air raids in the late 1930s. I haven’t spent enough time with sources like Min’guo Dang’an, and am thus lacking in statistics — How many Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese bombings in Chongqing, anyway? Unfortunately Chinese think tanks do a terrible job of translating even a handful of the abundance of data-rich and relevant articles in such journals as “Journal of Anti-Japanese War Studies,” which is why I had turned to the web.
With the class looking on, I grabbed a random web link, and found Chongqing students mobilizing for something else:
Chongqing Students Mobilize to Support Copenhagen Conference, Reduce Carbon Emissions -- courtesy Huanqiu Shibao
In seeing this image, it occurs to me that perhaps there are better things to remember than children suffocated long ago in air raid shelters, than the Cultural Revolution, than murderers in one’s neighborhood, than the price of milk. There are current and present problems which necessitate laying aside the past in the service of an unfettered future.
This was a lesson I wasn’t getting in Tacoma this morning. In my new local coffee shop (the old haunt is shut down on account of a quadruple-shooting in no-gun-control America), the DJ wished us all a “Happy Pearl Harbor Day,” which just about made me choke.
(It reminded me of some Luddite football commentator last year who stated that Philadelphia Eagles player Donovan McNabb had “really put the black quarterback controversy to rest.” What controversy? Which is to say, is Pearl Harbor a “day” for which one can be “happy”? And should I really be meditating on notions of revenge less than a week after my one-time neighbor, the genteel Maurice Clemmons, got a bullet from a police officer in return for his head-cracking lead storm in my coffee shop?)
Nevertheless, if I bothered to scratch the surface of my own past, the sentence made sense. After all, my father was alive during the Second World War and used to remind me that, as a seven-year-old boy in 1941, he was overjoyed to hear that the U.S. was getting into the war. Then, “V-J was the saddest day of my life,” he once told me. “Because I was always planning to join the Navy and fight the Japanese.”
Perhaps I internalized his anecdote, for at the age of seven I decided to write a short pamphlet on the Pearl Harbor attacks, placing myself at the scene. It was a common trick of my boyhood — self-identification with a Naval father who had, it seemed, at one point held down a position of authority, that is, before the present arrived on his doorstep all barnacled with its insistent and impossible demands. Father wields a mop, but, by Odin, my stories seemed to argue, he once wore dog tags and patrolled the Mediterranean.
In a further act of personification in my Pearl Harbor story, my boyhood buddies filled up the deck of the U.S.S. Arizona with me, until we were attacked by Patrick O’Flaherty, my Korean-American adoptee friend and classmate, who I placed in the role of a Zero fighter, doubling the sentiments of betrayal with which the whole Pearl Harbor enterprise appeared to be laden in my seven-year-old mind.
Compounding the politics of personal memory was the idea that my own false recollections of World War II were taking place in placid Marine on St. Croix at the height of the nuclear arms race, that Reagan’s voice steadied my hands and regulated my days, and that but four years later, in the brilliant year 1987, I would travel to Japan and there fall deeply into the embrace of a soft power superpower.
When I went to Japan, a few weeks later, ex-Prime Minister and Class A war crimes suspect Kishi Nobusuke fell dead. I like to think we ran across one another and exchanged skeptical glances.
Soft power and nuclear power hold hands tentatively and slow-dance to some 1978 crooning. The Cold War and its predecessor warm each other at night indoors, leaving their offspring, the future, madly untethered in a moonlit backyard, the cold wind deploying pine detritus all about him in random arcs. He cries with a futile grin:
carbon cloud rise like/vision
of European cities crowded with object d’affection/
afflicted with false memory again, reborn
as a kind of science /
philanthropic impulses can’t replace the dead/
warriors etch names into their shields/
Grendel stirs again in volcanic waters/
defense against the serpent’s return/we
build a tunnel, bore thro rock /
thrice afflicted, twice retold / the
memory calcified of brutal crucifixions