War can turn the best of men into monsters. But what happens when monsters are among men during war?
The rape of Nanking.
I woke with my eyelids stuck together from the thick, sticky humidity. Slowly blinking away the sleep that fogged my vision, I realized something was wrong. Staying in one of the biggest hotels in Nanking whilst having ‘unofficial’ trade talks with government officials, there was always an element of noise during the day as people walked among the halls and on the crowded streets outside. I had just woken from a nap and it couldn’t be later than 2 pm. This silence was deafening.
I rolled out of bed and walked over the shag carpet barefoot to the window. Unlatching it to throw it open, I leaned my head out and was momentarily blinded by the midday sun. White spots danced in my vision as the sound of bursting artillery shells and scattered gunfire broke through the silence as violently as the explosions which destroyed buildings near the outskirts of the city. The streets were deserted as all the civilians left in the city were hiding themselves and loved ones. Hopefully some of them wouldn’t be found. But where does hope exist in war?
Fuck, fuck, fuck. This mantra rattled in my brain as it searched futilely for some kind of plan that wasn’t there while I pulled socks on my feet. I couldn’t explain what I was really doing here as it went behind the Jap’s backs but I could explain my being here as some sort of spy. The problem was not getting shot on sight.
Shoving a set of black combat boots on my feet and tying the laces tight, I made my way back to the window to scout the street again before making my decision on which way to set off. I gasped at the line of citizens being marched down the street, I knew that I should go. Life and death. But I was unable to wrench my eyes away from the death that played out in the street in which I had seen children playing in hours earlier.
Our age is one of gunpowder, technological warfare where ships can fly and float and submerge so that battles were fought on completely different terms than in the past. What unfolded in the streets of Nanking on that day was not this advanced warfare that I had been trained with. This was something ancient and primal.
A man in an officer’s uniform with snow white gloves stood stock still, leaning on a black scabbard in front of a line of civilians shivering in the street. Soldiers surrounded the group with bayoneted rifles pointed steady so that the group could not run. A shiver ran through my own body as I realized in the split second before it happened, what was about to happen. The bombs and gunfire seemed to pause in the heartbeat it took for the officer to unsheathe his katana and cut down the man in front of him.
Blood filled and flowed through the gutters like a fresh hard rain as this leader of men cut down women and children with surgical precision. Begging and screaming was answered with merciless silence. It was evil and horrible and yet there was tradition that was fascinatingly morbid. In a time where men were killed by the dozens or hundreds this man was singily executing prisoners of war with his ancestral weapon.
The blade was only a shining blur as it cut through muscle and bone as easily as if it were made of butter. I can’t believe it’s not butter. Dozens of bodies fell to join the growing pile that stacked in the street. I looked on until it was finished. By watching until the very last I show them a measure of respect that is all I can give to them in this cruel world.
Soldiers crowd around cheering their leader as he finishes striking the last body down and stays on a bent knee for a few seconds with his head down. They begin stabbing bodies and throwing them into a pile.
My mind was consumed with considering how to safely approach these men when my searching eyes suddenly locked with a pair of brown ones. A blinking pair. A woman holding her baby was lying amongst the corpses trying to stay still while laying on one side. I didn’t know if her baby was alive at that point. She cradled the swaddling cloth like it was though.
Regardless, in that moment I felt pity and wanted to do more than show these people respect. No-one deserves what they just experienced. They would not kill this woman.
The soldiers were feet away from the woman, continuing to stab bodies as they laughed and cheered with bloodlust when I cried out, “Be ye men or beasts?!”
The legion looked up in collective surprise. They didn’t understand my language but they understood my tone. I was insulting these big bad soldiers in the city they had just taken. They would come for me.
In the split second before the bullets began screaming in the air towards me, I gave this woman a small nod. Gratitude warmed the brown of her eyes like the warmth of dirt in summer as these beasts of carrion turned their attention to the glory of a fresh kill.