The Enemy of Comfort

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. Vautrin, after returning to the United States, had a nervous breakdown in 1941 and, despairing over what she had been unable to accomplish, committed suicide. Rabe was arrested and briefly jailed by the Gestapo in 1938, when he gave a film of the Nanking massacre to the German government. After the war, he lived for a time in Switzerland, surviving on food sent to him by the grateful citizens of Nanking.

Like Vautrin and Rabe, Chang was unwilling to rest on the notion that she had done enough for the victims of the Nanking Massacre. She refused to take comfort in the honors that her book brought her, and in the year on the road that she spent promoting it, she made a point of confronting those who questioned her figures or doubted her accuracy. On television, she challenged the Japanese ambassador to America to apologize for the Nanking Massacre and became outraged when all he would concede was that “really unfortunate things” had taken place.

Chang's husband did not release her suicide note, and press reports failed to offer any details, so we can only guess about what drove her to such despair. But what we do know, in retrospect, is the heavy burden Chang put on herself. At the end of her life, she was working on a book about the Bataan Death March and the abuse of American prisoners of war by the Japanese, and it is impossible not to wish she had taken on an easier subject. But in a world in which so many international figures -- the United Nations' Kofi Annan immediately comes to mind -- seem content to deal with the challenge of human disaster in the fashion of athletes out to achieve a winning record (you may lose in Rwanda, but you win in East Timor), Chang had a moral integrity that set her apart. She knew that in the world she dealt with, the price for not doing enough was always paid for by those most vulnerable, and she could not escape the notion that comfort was the great enemy of people like herself.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial. Robert B. Reich will return next month.