There are no shortage of World War II stories in the world. The Greatest Generation, fighting perhaps the last truly righteous war, came home from Europe and the Pacific and became our fathers,
grandfathers, uncles, and grumpy old neighbors. American pop culture has seen plenty of images of D-Day, the liberation of the concentration camps, and the naval battles of the Pacific. And we've begun, in small ways, to deal with our own shameful WWII history, when tens of thousands of American citizens, who happened to be Japanese, were rounded up and sent to internment camps.
But the story of Louis Zamperini, and the other men held as POWs in Japanese prisoner of war camps, is something new added to the long narrative of World War II and its aftermath. If Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, was a fictional tale, I would probably say it is unrealistic. I mean, who would expect anyone to believe a story where survivors of a plane crash in the ocean survive for over 40 days drifting in a tiny raft in the Pacific, stalked by sharks, strafed by enemy aircraft, only to be "rescued" by the Japanese army and sent to prison camps, where the brutality shown them apparently knew no bounds? Any one of them is a former Olympic athlete? Yeah, right!
But this story is a true story, under the category of "you can't make this stuff up". Hillenbrand's book tell the chilling story of Louis Zamperini and his fellow pilots, flying bombing runs in the Pacific theater in planes that were themselves almost as dangerous to the lives of the crew as the enemy. To be honest, just the experiences of the men learning to fly these early war planes would have made a fascinating book. I was routinely horrified by the way the US military used these patriotic, enthusiastic young men (boys, really) as fodder for the war machine that sprang to life when Japan bombed Hawaii. But, of course, the real meat of the story is not about US military policy, but about the incredible struggle for survival that Louis and the other men who were stranded on that life raft endured in order to get back home.
What struck me most while reading this books was the lengths that the human mind will go to to preserve some shred of dignity in life. Despite the filth, the disease, the hunger, and the impossibly inhuman treatment suffered by the prisoners, each in their own way tried to find some small act of resistance or independence that made them feel as though they were still human, still valuable, still worthy of life and respect. Not every man was able to find a way to survive with sanity intact, but I think it is a great testament to the human spirit that even when being treated like animals, Louis and many of the men in the camps with him persevered. Of course, none of them left the experience without scars, both physical and mental.
Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that there is a movie of this book being released at Christmas. (I will admit to finding the timing unusual, since it is not exactly the most heartwarming, uplifting story.) I certainly plan to see it, but I am curious about one thing. The last quarter of the book examines the effects that Louis' experiences had on his psyche, his physical health, and his relationships. Will the movie? Are we so averse as a country to thinking/talking/considering the terrible consequences of making men into soldiers that the movie will end with a triumphant rescue, or will the film explore the deep, lingering pain that these men brought home? I certainly hope so. I hope that Hillenbrand would not have released the rights to the book without the part that, to me, speaks the most to what we can do as a society to make sure that no one, not one more American soldier or airman or seaman or marine, has to experience the brutalities of war the way the men in this book did.
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