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Reviewed by:
  • Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City by Peter Harmsen, and: Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice by Barak Kushner
  • Suping Lu (bio)
Peter Harmsen. Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2015. 368 pp. Hardcover $32.95, isbn 978-1-61200-284-2.
Barak Kushner. Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. ix, 416 pp. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-0-674-72891-2.

On July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge in a southwestern suburb of Beijing eventually led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The hostilities spread south to the Shanghai area when another incident, in which two Japanese servicemen and one Chinese soldier were killed, took place on August 9 at the entrance to the Hongqiao Airfield. War broke out on August 13 and continued in Shanghai for three months until the city fell to the Japanese on November 12. The Japanese, however, were not content with their gains at Shanghai. The Japanese troops moved swiftly in chase of the Chinese army westward, advancing toward Nanjing, China’s national capital at that time. The fall of Shanghai served as the prelude to the Nanjing campaign. With better weaponry and well-trained soldiers, the Japanese troops attacked efficiently and reached the Nanjing city gates on December 9. After fierce fighting against the Chinese resistance, the Japanese marched into Nanjing on December 13. What followed the Japanese capture of Nanjing went down in history as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking.

Peter Harmsen’s Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City focuses on the Nanjing campaign, offering his version of its different aspects: prelude, progress, result, and aftermath. As a journalist, he approaches the topic with detailed narratives at the personal level, citing diaries, memoirs, and other records by both Chinese and Japanese servicemen, as well as by persons such as John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, Robert O. Wilson, and many others who remained in the besieged city. While heavily depending on these primary sources to weave his descriptions, Harmsen adopts a storytelling technique, sometimes with analytical comments, to reconstruct this historical event. Largely due to that reason, his narrative accounts follow roughly the warfare’s advance as Japanese troops moved westward without providing detailed descriptions of what happened on the battlefields, such as a systematic, or better organized, description of military strategic maneuvers and combat action at different stages of the campaign.

From a unique and dramatic vantage, the author opens the first chapter with a narrative about Chinese bomber pilots and their observations. The signs of the war’s downturn were detected from the cockpit. The country roads near Shanghai “started filling with soldiers. They were dressed in the gray, khaki and blue uniforms of the loosely coordinated divisions and brigades that made up the Chinese Army. There were tens of thousands of them, and they were in full retreat” (p. 18). [End Page 149]

Harmsen’s chapter, “Battle at Lake Tai”—actually a small battle at Guangde (广德), Anhui Province, about thirty miles from the lake—chronicles the westward movement of the war. However, out of twenty-seven pages, the author only devotes a few to describing the battle itself. He quotes a Japanese officer’s memoir to give readers a glimpse of the battle. After spending long days on the road, twenty-one-year-old artillery officer Eiton Toshio finally reached the frontline near Guangde, and as he “dug in with only a few feet of no-man’s-land separating him from Chinese positions, he got his first taste of the special, dread-filled uncertainty attached to night fighting. One evening in November, he was preparing the bivouac and cooking rice over a bonfire when gunshots and panic-filled cries filled the air. ‘Put out the fire! The enemy is here!’ a hoarse voice shouted” (p. 124).

Due to the fact that Chinese troops failed to set up any effective defense line west of Shanghai to resist Japanese advance, battles in the lower Yangtze River valley were on a small...


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