I just finished reading a new book by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit. It’s called Unbroken, and it’s about the life and times of someone who was once quite famous but I had never heard of.
His name is Louis Zamperini, and he was an Olympic-class track star who likely would have been the man to have broken the four minute mile in the 1940 Olympics, which were not held due to the outbreak of World War II. Which war then took Louis into its embrace, setting him adrift across the Pacific in a liferaft no larger than our little inflatable vacation boat with two other downed airmen, before consigning him to the tender mercies of Imperial Japan’s POW system.
Yet for all that — and there’s much more all in the that — it’s an uplifting story. I highly recommend it.
One of the more interesting takeaways I had from reading it had nothing to do with Louis per se, though. The conditions in Imperial Japan’s POW camps were horrific, the result of that country being consumed by a militaristic culture that embraced “death with honor before surrender” to an extent unparalleled elsewhere. The equation was simple: only cowards surrender, so if you’re a captured combatant you start off lower than dirt and descend from there. Add to that the natural antipathy for the people you’re fighting plus wartime shortages and you have a mix that killed tens of thousands of captives. It would be quite easy, and understandable, to conclude in the final stages of combat that the world had no need for such a people. As I’ve often remarked to those who are ignorant of the horrors the Nazis visited on the Slavic peoples, the amazing thing about the end of World War II in Europe is that the Soviets didn’t simply exterminate the Germans. A similar argument could be made in the Pacific theater.
Part of the reason that didn’t happen, in either sphere, came from the pursuit of something most people consider quite venal, if not downright immoral: the realpolitik of the nascent Cold War put a premium on turning former foes into allies, or at least sources of economic power, ASAP.
But another part of the reason, at least in the Pacific arena, had nothing to do with global issues: for all the nasty, brutish and downright evil characters making the lives of Allied POWs miserable, there were ordinary Japanese citizens who tried to make things, if not better, at least not as bad as they would otherwise have been. It was those simple acts of kindness and humanity, done at great personal risk, which made the difference between life and death for many POWs. Violating the then-existing standards of honorable behavior in their culture, those individuals helped set the stage for a true peace with honor. By breaking part of the code they made it possible for its good parts to continue, unbroken, into the future.