Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand's account of the great miler Louis Zamperini, his experiences in WW II, and his life after being brutalized in a Japanese POW camp makes powerful reading.  Hillenbrand's research is prodigious, filled with specific dates, statistics, and arcane information.  That alone makes the book worth adding to one's book shelf.  But it is her writing style that brings the irascible Louie to life and takes us with him into hell on earth. 

This book has helped me understand my parents, and their generation who fought the war, better.  I now have a much greater sense of what it must have been like to live through Pearl Harbor and the battles of the Pacific.  My father was a Lt. Commander in the Navy during the war years.  His job was training soldiers on ways to survive if their ship sank or their plane was downed.  He never saw combat, but he knew what America was up against and what it cost each and every individual who lived through those frightening years.  What amazes me is how little my parents talked about those years in anything but the blandest terms.  I knew my dad was posted in Florida in the winter, Newport, R.I., in the summer.  Not a bad gig, I always thought.  They talked about the hurricane that called all officers back to base, leaving my mother alone with her small son.  I heard about my brother's allergies and his first-grade teacher.  I remember one story about close friends of my parents who eloped.  My parents stood up with them and planned a celebration after the ceremony: a box of chocolates they would share.  When they weren't looking, my brother ate them all.  Those were the difficulties I heard about.  There was so much more they didn't say, and I never fully grasped what exactly happened and how terribly so many men--and women too--suffered. 

Louie's story would be fascinating even without his war experiences.  He ran in the 1936 Olympics and shook Hitler's hand.  He had an oversize personality that drew people to him, even as he committed outrageous acts.  By the age of 14 he had his town of Torrence, Calif., terrorized by his shenanigans.  No one could control him, not even his beloved mother, no one but his older brother Pete, who used his own pristine reputation to haul Louis out of trouble on many more than one occasion.  Pete would later train soldiers in survival tactics like my dad did.  He spent the war in an agony of worry about his brother, who disappeared at sea and was presumed dead by the Army Air Force.  His mother knew, she just somehow knew, that Louis was alive, and she bought him presents every Christmas, which she kept until he at last returned home and could open them.  For the duration of his absence she suffered from a dreadful, debilitating rash on her hands.  As soon as she learned that he was, as she had long believed, alive, the rash immediately cleared.

The heart and soul of the book is in the account of Louie's years spent in Japanese prison camps, and he was sent to the worst of the worst.  Reading about what he endured--the beatings, the starvation, the humiliation, the despair, the unending physical and mental pain--is not easy, but for me it was necessary.  I have been so lucky, so sheltered, so safe that it takes a great leap of the imagination to even begin to absorb what happened to Louis and thousands of other men in similar circumstances.  But our good fortune does not exempt us from an obligation to try to comprehend suffering.  Bearing witness is important; it's the very least we can do.

There are two dominant personalities in "Unbroken."  One is Louie's, of course; the other is his chief tormenter, a man who would become notorious all over Japan for his cruelty, who escaped capture after the war, disappeared for a time, then re-emerged in Japanese society where he became a successful businessman, living to a ripe old age.  Nicknamed by his prisoners "the Bird", this man was not only capable of the most heinous violence, he positively relished it.  Beating and humiliating other men gave him erotic pleasure.  His unpredictability made him even more dangerous.  He loathed Louie and sought him out for the harshest treatment.  Here is a study in mental pathology that forced me to question human nature itself.  How can an apparently normal man be so transformed as to become a monster?  And how can that man return to normal life, start a family, achieve success, and never admit or accept his guilt for his sub-human behavior?

As for Louie, who endured things that killed many of his comrades, how did he fare after being reduced to a crushed, broken-spirited man?  PTSD was not recognized in the '40s and '50s as it is today.  Veterans got little in the way of psychiatric help, but the POWs from Japan suffered the most.  After the war most were never able to resume normal lives.  Suicide took many, Alcoholism many more.  Flashbacks, hallucinations, and all-consuming rage ruined lives and families.  Louis suffered from all these and for a long time, even after marrying the love of his life, it seemed he would never escape his tormenter, "the Bird."

I am not a religious person, and I honestly never warmed to Billy Graham, but it was he who brought Louie back.  Louie wasn't a religious man either; he dismissed religion out of hand, and when his wife got caught up in one of Graham's revivals and begged Louie to go with her, he flat out refused.  She wore him down, however, and one night, as he was rushing toward the door of the tent in a fury, Graham told him to stop.  Graham said, You can't leave now.  You can leave during my sermon but not when people are being saved.  Louie did stop.  And something inside him broke.  The rage was gone; he was at peace for the first time in years.  He became a Christian, poured out all his whiskey, reconnected with his wife, and went on to found a camp for wayward boys that saved kids from a road to nowhere.  He died in his 90s a happy, still athletic, lovable man.

I have thought about these 180-degree conversions a lot, having seen others go through the process of literally becoming a different person.  It seems to take extremes--going as far as possible in one direction before it becomes possible to reverse course.  Quite often it is religion that effects the transition, but I personally don't believe religion itself is responsible.  There must be something in human beings that when stretched far enough snaps, something deep in the mind where most of us never have to go.  Louis experienced this turn-around.  The question remains whether the Bird did or not.  It would seem not.  The amazing thing to me is not only that Louie could heal and forgive, but that the Bird, who had behaved so wantonly, so cruelly, could endure the rest of his life.  Parents who murder their children, former Nazis who terrorized and killed Jews, terrorists who blow up innocent women and children--how on earth do they live?  A great silence swallows the evil.  The sufferer can't bear to speak of his pain; the killer can't bear to speak of his guilt.  Laura Hillenbrand, with the help of Louie Zamperini and many, many others who aided her in writing this book, has opened up this silence and touched this reader's heart.  I think I understand now why my parents didn't drink.  My dad once told me he'd seen a lot of drinking in the Navy and it turned him off alcohol completely.  I thought he was being a prude.  Of course soldiers drank; it was their only escape.  Like religion, alcohol abuse is a means of coping. 

I'm not like Louie.  As I read this book, I became more and more angry.  I was thrilled to see the Bird's photograph displayed and gratified to have his behavior documented.  I could not and will not ever forgive him for what he did.  I can see that revenge upon such a man would indeed be sweet.  Maybe I haven't learned enough from "Unbroken."  I guess I need to think about it a bit more.