Monday, September 5, 2011

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

I had a break this last weekend as my family and I were able to spend some time with good friends in Colorado. As a result of the time off, I was able to read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand is most known for her book Seabiscuit and also has a remarkable story in her own right (see: "A Sudden Illness," also USA Today Article). Hillenbrand’s book centers around the life of Louis Zamperini who was a young Olympic runner in 1936, favored to dominate in the 1940 Olympics at the 1500 meter distance and likely to be the first man who would break the four-minute mile mark. This was a feat thought impossible at the time and actually not to be accomplished until 1954 when Roger Bannister would run it in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. 

Because of WWII, instead of training as an elite athlete, the 1940 Olympics would be cancelled and Zamperini would be drafted. Crashing in the waters of the Pacific in the B-24 bomber The Green Hornet, Zamperini would be among three survivors of eleven crewmen. He would spend 47 days in the open sea on a raft only with rain-water to drink and a few fish and birds to eat. Only two of the three survivors from the crash would survive the days at sea. Zamperini and his friend and pilot of the downed aircraft Allen Phillips would float into Japanese controlled territory and be subjected to inhumane treatment in various Japanese POW camps for the next couple of years. 37 percent of all Americans who landed in a Japanese POW camp during WWII would perish; compare to 1 percent of Americans who were in German POW camps.

The book is unbearable at parts considering the cruelty of the Japanese captors and considering the ways men do evil to one another. The worldview of the Japanese taught that there was nothing more frightening in life than losing one's dignity; therefore, the reverse logic was such that the best way to defeat an enemy was to take away his dignity, to break his spirit. I've not felt so defeated in reading a novel in a long time- the 25% Japanese in me (and the 100% human in me) cried out for these American POWs who were subjected to cruel and forced labor conditions, brutal beatings, inhumane living conditions, starvation and creative and inventive ways of psychological torment and torture.

Yet the book is about more than the cruel evil of war and the horrific treatment of men in the Japanese death camps; it's also a book about forgiveness, reconciliation and ultimately triumph. Does that sound overly-optimistic and dramatic? A bit too "American"? You be the judge:  

In the decades after the war, the abandoned Naoetsu campsite (where Zamperini had spent most of his time as a POW and experienced unspeakable horrors at the hands of his Japanese captors) decayed, and the village residents didn’t speak of what had transpired there. Over time, the memory was largely lost. But in 1978, a former POW wrote a letter to teachers at Naoetsu High School, beginning a dialogue that introduced many locals to the tragedy that had taken place in their village. Ten years later, former POW Frank Hole journeyed back to the village, which had joined another village to form Joetsu City. He planted three eucalyptus seedlings outside city hall and gave city leaders a plaque in memory of the sixty Australians who had died in the camp.

As they learned the POWs’ stories, Joetsu residents responded with sympathy. Residents formed a group dedicated to building a peace park to honor the dead POWs and bring reconciliation. Among the founding members was Shoichi Ishizuka, a veteran who’d been held as a POW by the Americans and treated so kindly that he referred to the experience as “lucky prison life.” When he learned what his Allied counterparts had endured in his own village, he was horrified. A council was formed, fund-raising began, and exhibits were erected in town. If the plan succeeded, Joetsu would become, among the ninety-one cities in Japan in which POW camps once stood, the first to create a memorial to POWs who had suffered and died there.... In October 1995, on the site of the former Naoetsu camp, the peace park was dedicated.  Unbroken, p. 394

Zamperini’s cruelest captor was a man named Matsuhiro Watanabe; the book goes into great detail regarding Watanabe singling out Zamperini since he had been a famous Olympian and subjecting Zamperini to many sorts of cruel and torturous treatments, the deranged captor even finding sadistic and sexual pleasure out of seeing the POWs under his rule suffer.

Following the surrender of the Japanese, Watanabe fled into the countryside and took menial jobs working on farms and serving in restaurants; despite intentional manhunts focused on capturing him, he was never captured and even thought by most to have died. By 1958, as a result of US policy that shifted in an attempt to make full peace with Japan, Japanese war criminals who had not been executed to that point either were released or given greatly-reduced sentences. “Wanted” fugitives like Watanabe were no longer pursued. In 1995, it was discovered that Watanabe as a 77-year-old was still alive. Zamperini was shocked. Hillenbrand even documents the financial success Watanabe had achieved over the years becoming a successful insurance salesman (as a justice-minded person this was sickening to read). Nonetheless, Zamperini would write this letter to Watanabe (though it was never confirmed if Watanabe actually received it, for he never responded to Zamperini):

To Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,

         As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
         Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.
         The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”
         As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison (where many of Zamperini’s tormentors had been imprisoned following the war) . . . I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had commited Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.

Louis Zamperini

Unbroken, pp. 396-97


gina said...

I don't think reconciliation and triumph sound overly dramatic. They are inspiring words... they are Kingdom words... and I hope they are American ideals... tough to discern sometimes if they are or not...

Mike Hsu said...

Hi Gina,

I think you are right. I remember a few years ago watching the moving "The Devil's Own" with Harrison Ford playing a NY City cop and Brad Pitt playing an IRA gunman whose father had been gunned down one evening while the family was eating around the dinnertable (Pitt was a kid at the time). In one scene, Ford asks Pitt, "did they ever catch the men who killed your father?" Pitt responded, "No, this is an Irish story, not an American one." I hope we can be hopeful of genuine reconciliation and triumph in this life, yet also not become overly triumphalistic at the same time. Triumphalism keeps us sometimes as those who are used to being on the "victorious side" from sitting in brokenness, pain and the toilsome parts of our existence (and that of others' as well)

I love Farmer's conversation with Tracy Kidder who does an amazing job "balancing" a triumphant vision of his life work with a kind of realism willing to identify with the "losers" as well: