08 February 2012

You must read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, the incredible story of Louie Zamperini: Olympic athlete, WWII veteran and survivor of 27 months in a Japanese POW (slave) camp.  Warning: this is NOT Hogan’s Heroes.  Not even close.

This was never a part of my assignment shelf.  I started reading it more than eight months ago, but I had to “put it down” because it became so emotionally difficult.  The language was beautifully readable – the content was virtually unbearable.  Nevertheless, entirely worth the effort.

I read the last 250 pages or so in just two evenings, practically chasing my family away from me so I could read.  The appalling stories of physically agony were harrowing, but the descriptions of the emotional trauma were even worse.  Even after surviving a month-and-a-half lost at sea, Louie and fellow airmen, sailors, and soldiers from many Allied forces were imprisoned in a series of POW camps that were NOT in accordance with Geneva Convention or International Red Cross standards: 

The crash of Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water, or shelter.  But on Kwajalein [the first camp], the guards south to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.  This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind.  Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain.  Without dignity, identity is erased.  In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide.  This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.  On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth know to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people.  Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.  The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.  In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.
(Unbroken, p. 182)

It makes me physically ill to read about (or watch a film containing) extreme physical cruelty.  SyrianaThe Hurt Locker, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley leave me nauseated.  Suffering is far more frightening than death.  When I could see that the book was taking this turn, that’s when I put it away.  But so many months later, it was long past the time that I should have returned this borrowed copy from my colleague who had recommended it so highly.  I didn’t have the heart to return it unfinished.  I’m glad I forced myself this small taste of their terrible plight.

Allied men found ways to subtly undermine their captors.  I don’t think the book would have been tolerable without the many stories of resistance.  Even with the risk of severe beatings, maiming, medical experimentation, and a host of other vicious experiences, they “stole” food (Red Cross food - which had been stolen away from them to be sold on the Japanese black market).  They damaged equipment, derailed trains, pilfered maps, communicated in code.  They sustained one another with small but meaningful acts of kindness and solidarity.  And occasionally they encountered a Japanese guard who took genuine pity on them, treating them more decently (until the decent treatment was discovered and discontinued by the monstrous commandants).

It wasn’t an entirely happy ending once the men returned to the United States.  These men retained lifelong physical and emotional scars.  Louie battled alcoholism and severe PTSD.  His lingering hatred and desire for vengeance continued to harm him.  Ultimately, he found Christianity and forgiveness.  In letting go of hate, he healed himself.

In German and Italian POW camps, the mortality rate of American men was 1%.  In Japan, it was 37% (Unbroken, p. 314-315).  My maternal grandfather was a WWII veteran of both the European and Pacific Theatres.  He saw combat in Europe, but he carried a passionate and lifelong hatred of many things Japanese (and Asian in general).  I never understood it.  He passed away in 1990 when I was 17.  This book shines some light on my grandfather’s experiences (which he never spoke of, at least not to his grandchildren).  I would guess that based on his role as an MP in post-VJ-Day, Occupied Japan, he probably encountered, even liberated, Allied POWs who had been imprisoned in these horrific camps.  These men, broken and yet still unbroken.

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