Jocko Wilink is a man uniquely qualified to talk about the full spectrum of violence. From competitive aggression on the jiu jitsu mat–where he holds a black belt–to horror in the streets of Ramadi, Iraq–where he lead a joint task force of SEALs and Marines through some of the toughest fighting in that war.
Now a civilian, he hosts a podcast that often explores the dark side of history.
So when Jocko begins an episode with a disclaimer–that the content will be horrific “even for him”–you know it’s about to get heavy.
His 60th episode reviews Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. He opens the show by reading the disclaimer from the book’s preface, followed by his own words of caution. “This episode is not for children,” he says, “this episode is barely even for adults.”
Iris Chang’s 1997 book was the first major work in English documenting the Nanking Massacre, an orgy of killing, mass rape, and torture by Japanese soldiers in the city of Nanking, China that left 300,000 dead as part of a campaign that killed an estimated 20 million civilians across East Asia.
They killed and maimed in every way you could imagine and many you couldn’t. They made games of killing and dismemberment. They killed with swords, fire, bayonets, and acid. They buried people alive, ran them over with tanks, and used living victims for bayonet practice. One Japanese newspaper at the time wrote a “sports” piece about a beheading contest between two young officers–first to 100 wins. The book contains descriptions that nobody who reads it will ever be able un-read.
Chang’s project began as a matter of curiosity. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she had grown up hearing stories about wartime atrocities. These stories were so graphic she assumed they were just metaphors for the brutality of war, or legends that had been embellished with time.
What she soon found was a glimpse into the abyss.
Her research led her to personal accounts from survivors, the journals of unashamed perpetrators, and gruesome photographic evidence (DO NOT Google image search this whatever you do.)
The book was an overnight bestseller that launched Chang on an international lecture tour. But she was unprepared for what happened next.
Women who had survived sexual slavery during the war started reaching out to her. They came from all over Asia, and many had never spoken about their experiences. Her work was praised by human rights groups and attacked by Japanese nationalists who denied the massacre–a controversy that’s still going on. At speaking events she was approached by survivors from other conflicts and genocides and by aid workers and veterans. People who had spent time on the dark side, people like Jocko, felt she got it right.
All of this weighed heavy on the young journalist. What started as fatigue from her book tour became anxiety, depression, and eventually, a nervous breakdown. She feared the political enemies of her book, she struggled with her new position as the voice of the atrocity. But most of all, she could not escape the things she had seen and heard in her research. It finally became more than she could bare, and Chang took her own life in 2004 at the age of 36.
In her suicide note she wrote, “I will never be able to escape from myself and my thoughts…”
Jocko chose Chang’s story to talk about the terrible cost of looking straight at evil, the perils of ignoring it, and the importance standing up to it. He relates his own war experiences and identifies with her as someone who chose to stare-down evil for a living.
He ends by stressing the importance of “being the light.” As if to answer what’s the point in studying something so horrific? He argues that to be a source of brightness, one must understand just how dark things can get.
He reads from The Woman Who Could Not Forget, a biography of Iris written by her mother, Dr. Ying Ying Chang. In it she writes of the brightness her daughter left behind:
Iris’ life was short but brilliant, like a splendid rainbow across the sky, one that the goddess she was named after would be proud of… What she left behind is a legacy of a life full of courage and conviction, and life’s work that will continue to illuminate and inspire.
Photo: Washington Post