book report: Unbroken by Hillenbrand (2010)


I read Unbroken in two days. I will summarize the story, mention the author's effect on the story, and then discuss the effect on me the reader.

If I didn't have family responsibilities I would have finished it on Saturday, but this book was hard to put down. I really did not know what to expect. I knew it was a book about American soldiers in the Pacific Theater of World War 2 but that's all. I didn't realize it was primarily a biography of Louis Zamperini who went from a sickly child to being a troublemaker, to being a record setting miler who competed in the Berlin Olympics where he stole a Nazi flag, to being a bombadier on B-24's, to a cast away living on a raft with 3 guys for 45 days until he was captured by the Japanese and tortured and degraded by them for the next year to the point of death until the Japanese surrendered. But his life continued on an amazing journey after the war. He suffered from PTSD and became a horrible alcoholic who endangered his wife and baby until she moved out and filed for divorce. But before the divorce proceedings started she went to a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles and got saved by Jesus. She convinced her husband, after telling him she was not going to divorce him anymore, to come with her to hear Graham. He did and left irritated. But somehow she got him to go one more time. He got up to leave during Graham's invitation to receive Jesus as savior and turned around and went to front to repent. He had promised God as he lay dying on a raft in the Pacific Ocean that if he lived he would serve God. He was completely changed that night. He dumped all his booze down the drain. His nightmares stopped. He was able to live again. He became an evangelist with Graham's organization for a while and was able to visit some of his prison guards, now prisoners themselves for their war crimes, and tell them the good news of Jesus and even personally forgive some of them.

The story is compelling enough but the details and the authority which Hillenbrand writes with magnify the power. Hillenbrand suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and spent seven years on this book, mostly from the confines of her house. She knows suffering and weakness and oppression beyond her control. I think she can speak with empathy about Louis's experiences with privation. In the linked interview above, she says she still calls on Louis for support in the struggles of her illness.

The facts she uncovered on the war were usually disturbing and gruesome.
"In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook noncombat losses." p.80

I vacillate on my agreement with Truman's atomic bombing of Japan. But when I learned about Japan's orders and practices of execution for all POW's about to be liberated, I lean to supporting the use of the bombs.
That August, the Japanese War Ministry would issue a clarification of this order, sending it to all POW camp commanders: At such time as the situation becomes urgent and it be extremely important, the POWs will be concentrated and confined in their present location and under heavy guard the preparation for the final disposition will be made … Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of them as the situation dictates … In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces. p, 198
The bombings killed up to a quarter million people directly. I don't know if there is a moral calculus to see if the costs in lives balance, but, like I said, I'm now tipped somewhat in favor of Truman's decision. These two bombs alone don't equal the death brought by the Japanese on Nanking. Look at this example of their actions before the US got to the main island,
That same month, American forces turned on Saipan’s neighboring isle, Tinian, where the Japanese held five thousand Koreans, conscripted as laborers. Apparently afraid that the Koreans would join the enemy if the Americans invaded, the Japanese employed the kill-all policy. They murdered all five thousand Koreans. p. 223
The massacre would truly have been bloodthirsty. When Japan was successful, their treatment of slave labor was just as brutal. In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were the prisoners of war.
Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four.* Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died.* By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. p. 313
If the American invasion triggered the slaughter of POWs, then 132,000 would have died right away before the losses to the invading army. Just as radiation from the bombs caused long term illness and destruction to Japan, so did the inhuman treatment of POWs by the Japanese also create long term damage.
As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring. In the first six postwar years, one of the most common diagnoses given to hospitalized former Pacific POWs was psychoneurosis. Nearly forty years after the war, more than 85 percent of former Pacific POWs in one study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized in part by flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares. And in a 1987 study, eight in ten former Pacific POWs had “psychiatric impairment,” six in ten had anxiety disorders, more than one in four had PTSD, and nearly one in five was depressed. For some, there was only one way out: a 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls. p.346
It wasn't the effects of starvation that caused nightmares and self-destructive behaviors, but the effects of the dehumanization of POWs. For Louis Zamperini though, his secret was forgiveness,
In Sugamo Prison, as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over. p. 379
Jesus speaks about this secret himself, as many others have. So I entered into the hatred of the POW's toward the Japanese guards but, with Louis was able to journey out of it into forgiveness for them and empathy for our soldiers.


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