The Massacre at Nanking and the USA

By | December 13, 2014

[December 13, 2014] Senior leaders of the U.S. military are taught that through the study of war, peace is more likely to be maintained. Leading up to World War II in 1937, the Japanese invaded China and at the city of Nanking massacred many thousands. Americans are generally badly informed of this event and fail to grasp the significance of its connection to the USA.

In 1903 Elihu Root, U.S. Secretary of War, said of professional military education that the intent was “not to promote war, but to preserve peace …”1 The study of war has been an intense area of interest across the world. For example, over 2,500 years ago the Chinese general Sun Tzu was an early writer about the fundamentals of war.2 Yet, despite all our efforts to learn about war we often fail to grasp how the conduct of warfare affects culture.

Given all this professional study, our recent history still eludes us; our ignorance of the past is brilliantly stunning. In particular the events in Asia prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor are not taught in most U.S. schools and that explains, in part, American international egocentrism.

The “Massacre at Nanking”3 has been said to be the greatest mass murder in Asia in modern times. Controversy surrounds the actual historical events and is disputed by historians, especially by the Japanese. It is estimated that the Imperial Japanese Army massacred between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese starting on this date in 1937. Women and children were not spared.

Massacre is a term that understates what actually happened. The horror is on such a vast scale that would make any person sick just to read about it. The History Channel gives a good summary of what happened (see link), so I leave reading it up to you. What it does do however, is to give background to why the United States imposed harsh economic sanctions on Japan – their brutal occupation of parts of China. The massacre at Nanking was a significant event that helped pushed the USA to impose those sanctions and eventually Japan to attack the United States.

Furthermore, the occupation and the atrocities continue to “complicate” relations between Japan and China to this date, December 13. Anyone who has been to China will note that they go out of their way to distinguish themselves from Japan in all ways. Americans are ignorant of any differences and thus we miss much of the rich and complex cultural distinctions. China is not the only country with complicated relations with Japan. South Korea was under an occupation until the end of World War II.

The study of war, the study of specific and significant wartime events, and the application of lessons from these are what help make us better leaders. All of us should be aware of unseen cultural patterns that result from our past that effect the present. Leaders are expected to understand our friends, our enemies, and also ourselves. Fail to do so and we are in peril. Sun Tzu said it best:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu

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[3] Current official spelling: Nanjing

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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