Every now and then, I read a book that reminds me just how young I am. Last year, I read Terry Tempest William’s memoir, When Women Were Birds. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the right life experiences to understand the book; I just didn’t have enough life experiences, period. Last night and this morning, as I finished Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, I had the same feeling. I find myself baffled by Louis Zamperini, even after spending 400+ pages with him.
Because five minutes on Wikipedia will give you a solid outline of Zamperini’s life, I’m going to skip my usual synopsis and get straight into my unorganized thoughts about the book.
I have always been deeply infuriated and frustrated at the treatment of the Second World War’s war criminals. Though some were captured and a few put to death, too many slipped through the cracks and escaped to live the long lives that were denied to their victims. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, Zamperini’s chief torturer, was one of the men who escaped the efforts to find him after Japan surrendered. He died in 2003 and never saw the inside of a jail cell. Prisoners of war in Japanese camps suffered unspeakable tortures and deprivations. But a few years after the war, American authorities in Japan stopped hunting and prosecuting war criminals in the name of public relations—just like they did in Germany. Worse, I think, is that the Japanese government hasn’t taken official responsibility for their past crimes (especially the Rape of Nanking).
This angers me, but doesn’t baffle me. What baffles me is Louis Zamperini’s ability to forgive the men who beat, starved, and tormented him for over two years. What happened to him in Ofuna, Omori, and Naoetsu was unforgivable. Zamperini justifiably plotted revenge against Watanabe for years before his wife, Cynthia, talked him into hearing Billy Graham give sermons. Unbroken is a little vague about this part, but Louis found God and forgiveness for his captors. (This is also a problem I had with When Women Were Birds. Mystic/religious experiences are ineffable. You can’t understand them unless you’ve actually had one yourself.) As I read the last third of the book, after Zamperini was liberated, I kept wanting to shout at the book, “Where is the justice?”
This is an interesting time to read Unbroken. It’s only been a few weeks since the CIA’s report on torture at Guantánamo came out. Many of the atrocities in that report are mentioned in Unbroken. Waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and other crimes were used on Allied POWs in the camps. I supposed this is the hypocrisy of the Geneva Conventions; they only apply to soldiers in uniform. If you’re designated as an enemy combatant out of uniform, anything could happen to you. No one should have to suffer like Zamperini.
Hillenbrand does her best to help her readers understand the mindset of the Japanese army before and during World War II. She writes about shame in Japanese culture. She writes about the importance of rank. She writes about how positions of power encourage violence and sadism. None of this is written as an apology or excuse. While she falters in explaining Zamperini’s conversion to born again Christianity, she succeeds in bringing the world of POW camps back to life. This is a difficult book to read because Hillebrand doesn’t shy away from anything.
I haven’t seen the film version of Unbroken. (I probably won’t. I have a bad track record when it comes to going out to see movies.) I have a bad feeling that a lot of Hillenbrand’s research and nuance is going to be stripped away. (This is what happens every time a book is adapted.) Unbroken and Zamperini’s story are complex. By taking away the nuance and context, I fear that the movie won’t deliver the same lessons that the book does.