Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I will admit up front that non-fiction is not my thing.   There's nothing I like more than a good read and, while I haven't sampled the genre generously, I've found most non-fiction books that I've picked up to be a bit dry.  It's hard to ignore the press around Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, however, so I decided to give it a try.  In fact, I actually broke down and ordered a copy of the book from Amazon, only to find it in the library the next day.  (Sort of like a couple who adopt a child and then miraculously get pregnant, admittedly on a different level!)

Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini, a WWII bombadier whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean during a rescue mission in May of 1943.  He was adrift on a life raft for 47 days before being captured by the Japanese, who held him as a POW for the duration of the War.  After a bit of a slow start, Hillenbrand tells Zamperini's story in a compelling manner.  At times, I didn't want to put the book down, anxious to find out what happened next.  What I found most interesting about Hillenbrand's writing, though, was her attention to detail.  There are 50 pages of footnotes at the end of the book, citations to articles, letters, scrap books and phone conversations that were part of her research for the book, which took her seven years to write.  These details really make the book come alive.  By way of example, when Louie was adrift on the life raft, Hillenbrand tells us not only what provisions were available to him, but what provisions should have been on the raft (such as desalinization equipment and a radio transmitter) and provisions that would become "standard" for life rafts in 1944 (including a tarpaulin, a mast and sail, fishing tackle and, interestingly, religious pamphlets). 

Like any good non-fiction book, I found Unbroken to be educational.  While Zamperini's story is amazing, he is only one of thousands of men who were held as POWs by the Japanese.  I realized as I read the book that whenever I think about WWII, I think about Hitler, the Nazis and concentration camps.  So to read about the way that the Japanese treated the POWs--as well as the "slaves" that they captured--was enlightening.  Hillenbrand "explains" this treatment by telling readers about the Japanese mentality, for whom "a loss of honor could merit suicide".   Most Japanese soldiers would rather die than be taken hostage--a loss of honor--and some Japanese soldiers who were captured gave false names, believing that their families would rather think them dead than captured.   To these men, Allied soldiers who "let" themselves be captured were beyond contempt, and deserved the beatings and starvation that were wrought upon them.    

The book also made me think a bit about the Geneva Convention and what a leap of faith it is to expect enemy soldiers to abide by it.  In Unbroken, certain aspects of the Convention were adhered to by the Japanese, such as Allied officers not being forced to work.  The downside, though, of not having a job was that they often were given even more meager rations than a "working" POW (and when a ration consists of a bit of seaweed, every bit counts).    Under the War Crimes Acts of 1948 and 1952, POWs were awarded $1 for each day of imprisonment that they could prove that they weren't given the amount and quality of food mandated by the Geneva Convention and $1.50 per day that they could prove they had been subjected to inhumane treatment.  I'm curious how this "proof" was established, but in any event am certain that this payment in no way compensates for the treatment these men suffered.

One last historical note of interest is the shift in US policy towards the Japanese starting in 1948.  Hillenbrand notes that while there was a worldwide outcry after the war to punish the Japanese who had mistreated POWs , "new political realities" emerged.  With the Cold War beginning, the US needed Japan as an ally, and the war crimes "issue" was a sticking point in the alliance.  Taking a longer term view, the US backed off, declaring an amnesty for, among others, 17 men awaiting trial for Class A war crimes (the designation reserved for those who had led the war).  All war crime trials were ended shortly thereafter, and the sentences already meted out to convicted war criminals were subsequently reduced.  

Unbroken is a story of one man's journey through hell and back. It truly is, as the book says, a story of "survival, resilience and redemption."   Especially during this holiday season, it makes me think of our troops abroad.  One can only hope that their spirits will ultimately be as unbroken as that of Louie Zamperini's.


  1. In one of David Bowie's best movies, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" he plays a British Major in a Japanese POW camp in WWII.

    I saw the movie back when it was released (a loooong time ago) and remembered thinking about life from a Judeo-Christian view of sanctity and value and the Japanese view that a life without honor is not worth living. It's not an easy movie to sit through, but if it's a subject that interests you, it may be worth putting on the Netflix queue.

  2. Added to the queue (but I have to admit that it will be a hard sell to get it to the number one spot--it sounds very, very hard to watch). Netflix lists "Deer Hunter" and "Full Metal Jacket" as comparable films!


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