Torture, Survival, and Forgiveness in World War II Japan

My mind was elsewhere today. I was down due to a couple simple twists and turns of life, I nevertheless couldn’t help but get pulled into and finish the 500 page Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived 47 days on the Pacific ocean in a raft, 3 years as a prisoner of war, and a lifetime of attempting normalcy in a society that cannot possibility relate to the psychological ordeal he went through.

Surviving One Step at a Time

In some ways, his story is one that has been experienced by millions of soldiers in the past century. His story represents the quiet suffering of millions, each with their own  journey that too often came to a darker ending. I’m not giving away much of the story here, what I said so far is revealed up front. You should read the book, especially in a time when you’re going through something challenging yourself. It will inspire you to learn of the depth of perseverance that rests in each one of us.

As Zamperini says himself, if he knew ahead of time that he would have to go through all that he went through, he would most certainly commit suicide. But when you break it all down day by day, step by step, the mind can bare the deepest solitude and the harshest torture.

Forgiving Evil

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.”

Mutsuhiro_WatanabeFrom reading interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, it often comes through that forgiveness is liberating but is also damn near impossible for most people. In Louie Zamperini’s case the embodiment of evil was one man (picture left): Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka “The Bird”). The Bird derived erotic pleasure from torture. He was weak-willed, jealous, insecure, and psychotic. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Zamperini’s life is the forgiving of this man.

For Zamperini, the answer was in discovering God. I was disappointed at first to see the transformation of this unbreakable will through a religious awakening, but perhaps there is no greater example of the end justifying the means. I wished he would have overcome this final challenge without resorting to a belief in a higher being. It felt like an escape rather than an “overcoming”. But again, in this case, the end justifies the means. This man would not be broken.

A Mother’s Unconditional Love

One other beautiful and morally-wrenching aspect of the story is the love of Mutsuhiro Watanabe’s mother towards her son. Her unwillingness to give up The Bird (a public monster, torturer of hundreds, and one of the biggest Japanese war criminals of WWII) to the authorities given the opportunity, showed the ability of a mother’s love to transcend the bounds of reason and morality. While I found both human beings despicable, there was something very human about that kind of love: the unbreakable bond of family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *