What aren’t we learning from history? Plus, history’s warning of concentrated power

Nanking Massacre

I’m still in my morning fog, which is slowly dissipating with each gulp of hot, comforting coffee, when I came across a link on reddit.com. It was one of those “TIL” headings meaning “Today I Learned” and the learned information was that the Japanese had actually killed more Chinese during WWII than Jews that were killed in the Holocaust by Germany. From there, a discussion emerged about the atrocities and overall devastation during WWII. Estimates vary, but generally, according to this, that seems to be the case.

Now, some may scoff at the idea of comparing death tolls. As if, it’s some gruesome statistical metric of, “Well, our people were killed off more than your people.” However, there is a worthwhile subtext to this. Obviously, it would be silly to say one act of genocide was more evil than another and certainly, we don’t want to say, for example, a Jewish life is more important than a Chinese life. Yet, still, it is curious how little attention is given to the war crimes of Japan and the particular genocide against the Chinese during WWII.

I went through twelve years of public education and have thus far entertained almost five years at a university. Despite that, I can’t recall one instance in that time where we discussed the massacre of the Chinese. Not once. All those classes, all those hours in the classroom, all those subjects, teachers and different levels, and not once did we discuss it. Contrarily, we definitely talked about the Holocaust. Off the top of my head, I can’t say for sure when I first was introduced to the subject in my schooling, but I know it was taught quite a few times over by the time my schooling ended. More specifically, we learned just about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and not the assortment of others (gays, mentally ill, Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, the handicap, political opponents, etc.).

And don’t get me wrong. I am very passionate about the Holocaust and I find there are many angles to it that are worth looking into. But history ought to be more all-encompassing, right? So, is there a racial subtext to the delegation of historical subjects to Western students? I mean, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were White Europeans thought to be “cultured.” And the victims studied are largely Jewish. This also goes back to an earlier blog post I made about the dropping of the atomic bombs whereby the bombs allowed the Japanese to save face (with Western countries) on all the atrocities they committed, which is a damn shame.

I mean, how many Western students would know what the Nanking Massacre is? The period of time wherein the Japanese invaded China with indiscriminate killing, raping, and looting. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimates that 20,000 women were raped just in the first month of the invasion. That’s twenty thousand women and I should clarify, “women” actually involves girls as young as twelve. This event is an ugly, disgusting and undeniably terrible black mark on the history of the human race. But there is hardly anything said in Western history courses.

Moreover, to shift gears for a moment, all told, estimates range between fifty and eighty million people dead from WWII or related reasons. That’s just a small, but deadly window in the twentieth century. One also has to take into account WWI, Mao in China, Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Rwanda, Hussein in Iraq, among a plethora of other atrocities, wars, human-induced famines, and the like.


All told, anywhere between 136.5 and 148.5 million people died as a result of war and conflicts in the twentieth century. If you add in politically caused deaths in the twentieth century, then that range jumps to an average of 231 million people dead. As Milton Leitenberg in his article, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” put it, “No wars take place by accident, as Richard Ned Lebow’s book Between Peace and War demonstrated. Government leaders and insurgents as well, make war by calculation—though the events they unleash don’t always run according to the pattern that they might have preferred.”

Leitenberg provides a good example as well on percentages and disproportionality because one can look at these statistics from afar without really grasping the magnitude of death. So, for instance, he talks about the United States’ bombing campaign in Laos between 1967-1968 and 1972.

He says, “…deaths in Laos caused by local combat and daily U.S. bombing from the air averaged 30 people per day, or around 11,000 per year. That level of killing was maintained for at least four years. However, if one compares the size of the Laotian population and that of the United States and applies a proportionate rate of deaths to the U.S. population at the time, that would amount to 3,000 people per day or 4.38 million people in four years.”

Such a thought boggles the mind. But what is the point here? The point is that just in the twentieth century (because we could talk pre-twentieth century or the twenty-first) governments and dictators have been responsible for 231 million deaths. Now, I can see some people rolling their eyes and saying, “You can’t simply those deaths to the actions of government; people did that, not government.” Obviously, people did those things, but the lesson from history is that when you concentrate such power in conjunction with the structural means in which to exercise that power, you get war, induced famine and the like. Yes, something like the Nanking Massacre involves cultural influences, religious influences and such, but those influences with concentrated power and look what happens.

For some reason, we seem to think because we’re living in the twenty-first century; our generation is somehow removed from that barbaric, bloody, power-hungry previous century. “We’re not like them. Certainly, that could not happen again.” And as a result, we continue to put our faith in government, power and belief in the righteousness of war. How anyone can look at the twentieth century and not be fervently anti-war, I don’t know.

It’s just unfortunate to me that libertarians, mini-anarchists and the rest get chastised with the same criticisms such as, “Name a country that’s ever tried libertarianism” or “If we tried your system, people would suffer and die.” Yet, the government or those with powers similar therein, have been responsible for some of the absolute worst atrocities and conflicts in human history. Such a system of concentrated power allows that. I’m not arguing libertarianism or a government-less society would be a panacea of human peace and cooperation, but at the very least, with less power in fewer hands, the potential for peace is greater.


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