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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Iris Chang - author of "The Rape of Nanking" - dead at age 36

Hardly anyone in the western world had ever heard of Nanking, or cared about what transpired there during 1937-1938 when the Japanese invaded the city. Then came 1997 and the release of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Suddenly it seemed like everybody was talking about it. The Rape of Nanking became to those of us in our college's history department what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was to the residents of Savannah: if you asked one of us "have you read it?" they would instantly know what "it" was referring to.

In a lot of ways Chang's book evoked the same time-delayed reaction that started happening about twenty-five or thirty years after the Holocaust in Europe: it wasn't until people were confronted with the fact that, yes, this REALLY DID HAPPEN that the full brunt of the horror was felt. That's not to suggest that the Nanking occupation was intentionally ignored by those of us in America and Europe, but the sheer weight of firsthand accounts on our own soil about the Nazis' atrocities simply overwhelmed - and unfortunately so - those of the other horrors of World War II. And it took a pretty long while for even all those eyewitnesses to open up and start confronting the rest of us with what happened.

What literally millions did in bringing the Holocaust to the fore of western conscience, a mere handful of scholars did the same to make people aware of what happened at Nanking. And it must be said with very little argument that none did so much to accomplish that as did Iris Chang. She was young - only 29 when The Rape of Nanking was published - but already a dedicated researcher and model historian. In pulling together the story of Nanking she revealed herself to be a master of the narrative. Stephen Ambrose - author of Band of Brothers and other WWII books - described Chang as "maybe the best young historian we've got." And if I might add with all due and sincerest honesty, Iris Chang was a very beautiful woman.

I didn't hear until a little while ago that Tuesday she was found dead - by self-inflicted gunshot to the head - inside a car along a California highway.

Here's the full story that got sent to me with the details. I know that there's a zillion other things in the news right now that are gobbling up everyone's attention, but I felt really compelled to make a note of her passing, and lament the loss of one of the very few of my own generation's greatest historical minds. Thoughts and prayers going out to her family today.