Two films have come my way recently that deal in their own way with the systematic brutality of modern armies. “Burma Soldier”, an HBO Documentary that airs on Wednesday May 18, tells the story of Myo Myint who joined the Burmese army in 1979 at the age of 16 and trained as specialist clearing landmines. An attack by Burmese insurgents severely injured Myint, leaving him without a leg, an arm and most of the fingers on the hand of the remaining arm. What he lost physically was offset by a political and spiritual transformation that turned him into a pro-democracy activist. Not only is “Burma Soldier” a stirring portrait of one man’s struggle against physical and political adversity, it is an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York, “City of Life and Death” is a fictional account of the so-called Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army’s assault on China’s capital city in 1937 based on Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller. I can recommend it but with major qualifications.
Even before his calamitous injuries, Myint began to question the cruel and anti-democratic role of the military. To start with, the dominant Burma nationality sought to impose itself on other ethnic groups in the same fashion as the Turks over the Kurds, or the Chinese over the Tibetans. The military that had seized power in 1962 sought to forcibly assimilate the “lesser” nationalities into its own warped vision of Burmese identity in accordance with the arrogant “modernizing” vision of both British colonialism and the “socialist” powers that forgot that there is no socialism without democracy.
He saw countless acts of brutality when on duty. Women, especially from the non-Burma nationalities, were forced to work as porters and even to walk in front of the soldiers in mine-infested terrain. Insurgent captives were routinely tortured. Myint recounts one incident in which a knife was plunged through the cheeks of a man during the course of an interrogation.
As you watch “Burma Soldier”, you cannot help but be reminded of the unfolding drama in the Middle East as one self-described “socialist” or “radical” government seeks to impose itself on a restive population. It is useful to remember that the brutal and corrupt Burmese military that has as dominant a role in the national economy as is the case in China or once was the case in Turkey.
General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.
After leaving the army, Myint embarked on an intellectual journey that led him to read a wide variety of philosophical and political books. He came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed. He became an activist and took part in demonstrations following the 1988 economic restructuring. He also started a secret library of banned books. When he was arrested at a rally, he told the judge at his trial that “I don’t believe in the military regime”. That act of defiance led to a 15 year prison sentence.
The oppressive system in Burma has led to remarkable acts of courage from individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for about the same number of years Myint was in prison. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59% of the votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. The army decided that the people’s will meant nothing and have ruled by terror for more than the past 20 years. One can only hope that the people of Burma will finally prevail since history and the unshakeable will of people like Myo Myint are on their side.
“City of Life and Death” is an unrelenting journey through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 that some scholars believe resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 civilians. Considering that these deaths occurred in the span of weeks rather than years, it has led some to consider it as one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century in terms of the time-frame.
Hewing closely to the findings of Iris Chang, Chinese director Lu Chuan tells a tale of unremitting cruelty that amounts to a holocaust for his own people. Indeed, this story included its own Oskar Schindler, one John Rabe, a German businessman (despite his Anglo-sounding name) that ran Siemen’s branch operation in Nanking, who confronted the Japanese army over its abuses and sought to protect civilians in a Safety Zone that was often disregarded by the occupiers. In one scene, they come into the Safety Zone in order to dragoon 100 Chinese women into working as sex slaves for their troops.
Rabe (John Paisley) has a Chinese male secretary named Tang (played by Fan Wei, a Chinese comedian in a decidedly non-comic role) who like his boss appeals to the dubiously better judgment of the Japanese. In a departure from conventional holocaust type narratives, John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who uses his ties to Hitler to sway the Japanese military brass. In one of the unfortunately all-too-glaring missteps of this well-intentioned film, there is no attempt to put his humanitarian impulses into any kind of context. We can only surmise that Rabe had an emotional attachment to the Chinese people that stemmed from having living in Nanking since 1909.
As might be expected, Tang is a passive figure who follows Japanese orders in more or less the same way that the Judenrat cooperated with Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, at least until the full horror of Japanese occupation is revealed. In one of the film’s more wrenching scenes, the soldiers hurl his 11 year old daughter through the second story window of an apartment building killing her instantly. Her offense was to try to interfere with a Japanese detachment that was rounding up Chinese women for a “comfort station”, including her mother.
Given the unrelenting procession of horrors that are depicted in this 133 minute film (Chinese captives burned alive, etc.), one might ask what might motivate an audience to remain in its seats until the bitter end, about which there is no doubt from the very beginning.
The NY Times review puts its finger on one of the film’s strengths:
“City of Life and Death” isn’t cathartic: it offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must. In one awful, surreal interlude, severed male heads swing from rope like ornaments, while in another, Japanese soldiers — having buried some Chinese men alive — stamp down the earth as if planting a crop.
Although I recommend this film with some reservations, I have to wonder about the strange world we are living in when the “immodest balm of art” suffices. Somehow, the visual power of Lu’s film is expected as a pay off when all else fails in terms of our conventional expectations of drama. Shot in black-and-white, it certainly grips your attention with its flair for the macabre.
But despite my admittedly close attention to the gruesome action, I found myself troubled throughout by the film’s lack of context. There is nothing at all to explain why the Japanese occupation was so barbaric. In many ways, the film reminded me of the 1997 “Welcome to Sarajevo” that depicted the Serbs in pretty much the same terms, as demonic forces that killed for the love of killing.
Iris Chang’s book set the tone for the film by adopting the same stance toward the Japanese whose culture apparently set them on the course of a Nanking holocaust in the same way that German culture prepared the extermination of the Jews. Some critics of her books take exception to that view, however. In a 1998 review that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, David M. Kennedy wrote:
Elsewhere Chang serves notice that “this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character,” but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the “Japanese identity”–a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors’ code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that “the path to Nanking” runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.
In my view, wartime savagery is not the reflection of any national culture but instead the result of indoctrination that young men and women receive when they are drafted or when they enlist during the kind of fervor that arose after 9/11. Military training consists mainly of getting normal people to get used to the idea of killing, a most unnatural form of behavior no matter what a sociobiologist might tell you. It is not in our culture or in our genes. It is rather in the propaganda system of the hegemonic powers and their drill instructors that are carefully selected for their ability to transform ordinary people into killers. For insights into this, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.