I stepped into the shower yesterday afternoon, after the luxury of a good sweat in the sauna, and thought about the book I'm currently immersed in as I shampooed my hair and rinsed off in a steady, constant flow of warm water. I watched the water gather in the shower pan and gurgle down the waste drain, thinking about those things I take for granted in my life--things like a clean body to walk around in, as much reliably clean water as I need to drink--and about how those things are not available to many people in this world, and how fortunate I am to have them.
These thoughts were prompted by the realization of what this simple, daily routine would have meant to the men I have been reading about--men captured by the Japanese military in World War II and held in prison camps in unimaginable circumstances, with barely a few grains of rice to eat, a thimbleful of foul water each day, scant items of clothing or bed covering even on freezing winter nights, their filthy, decaying bodies tormented by lice and fleas. And these scarcely survivable living conditions were nothing when compared with the brutal sadism of certain of their captors and guards, the vicious daily beatings with clubs and fists, the torture, the beheadings... That men did survive such circumstances, in some cases for years, is testament to the human spirit and the astounding resilience of the human body.
The book I have been reading is Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the earlier bestseller, Seabiscuit. It's the story of the pre-war Olympic athlete, Frank Zamperini, a competitor in the 1936 Berlin Games, whose finely-tuned body was capable of extraordinary feats of speed and strength. His great ambition before the war was the four-minute mile, a feat considered by many at the time to be impossible for any human being--and was well on his way to achieving that goal. Then came Pearl Harbor (I happen to be writing down these words on the very day, December 7,) and the entry of America into the global conflict. Zamperini was trained as a bombadier, flying missions over the Pacific in the notoriously unstable B-24 bomber. His trial by ordeal unfolds in Hillenbrand's book in four dramatic and meticulously described acts: the terrors of aerial combat and assault by Zeros; a record forty-seven days in shark-infested seas aboard a life raft with two other crewmen; twenty-seven long months in a succession of Japanese prison camps; and years of painful struggle with the demons of that experience following his return home. That Zamperini survives to this day, now in his nineties, is a remarkable tribute to the spirit of the man.
The story Hillenbrand tells—the result of years of research and ample documentation—is a truly harrowing one. It’s almost impossible for a reader like myself who has not experienced combat to comprehend the courage it took for Zamperini and men like him to step aboard those airplanes in the full knowledge that some—many—would never return, shot up by Japanese defenders in the air or downed in the vast Pacific Ocean with little hope of discovery or rescue. Equally hard to comprehend is the will to survive the pitiless, blistering sun, the hunger and thirst, the raging seas and the unrelenting attacks of powerful sharks for a month and a half, lost at sea aboard a tiny raft. Still less the stark, humiliating cruelty with which they were treated as prisoners of war by an enemy that apparently ignored all rules of civilized behavior, including those of the Geneva Convention. There were, of course, a few particularly sadistic perpetrators involved; but the stories of slave labor, forced prostitution and generally brutal mistreatment of military captives and civilians alike are too widespread and too well documented over the years to gloss over institutional responsibility for a deeply shameful period in Japanese history.
Remarkable, too, is the story of Zamperini’s recovery—impossible, in this telling, so long as he held on to the pain and anger. He found release only after furious resistance and a prolonged, self-destructive battle with alcoholism; it came eventually for this one, deeply wounded veteran through the agency of the evangelist Billy Graham, into whose tent he was dragged reluctantly by his despairing wife, as his life and marriage threatened to disintegrate. Zamperini’s embrace of Christianity brought him to the threshold of forgiveness for his torturers and, at last, compassion. It also opened the door for the discovery of a new mission in life, as a teacher, a mentor, and an inspirational speaker.
In the wake of the mistreatment to which Zamperini and his fellow veterans were subjected, forgiveness and compassion were understandably hard to come by. Many were never able to find it in themselves, and Hillenbrand’s final chapters include the tragic evidence of lives poisoned by the toxicity of unhealed wounds. With a tenacity as strong as that needed by an endurance athlete like this Olympian, the will to hold on must have especially powerful, especially hard to break. It tells us a great deal about the human spirit that this one man managed to find an end to the suffering he endured by finally releasing himself from that attachment, with surely just as much courage as it took to live through its cause.
As I thought to myself as I turned off the shower, those of us who have never had to withstand such assaults on our very being are fortunate indeed. Unhappily, there are many on this planet, even today, whose lives are subjected to the inhumanity of their fellow men in circumstances not dissimilar from those horrifically described in Unbroken. Hasten the day, then, when we will all finally learn the value of compassion.