Unbroken is subtitled A World War II Story of Survival, resilience, and Redemption, and it certainly is that. But there’s a difference between Laura Hillenbrand’s latest (second) well-written piece of non-fiction (Seabiscuit was the first) and other war biographies. Certainly the story of Louis Zamperini, his rogue childhood, his discovery of a talent for running that probably saved him from criminality and put him on track to become the world’s first four-minute miler, the war that interrupted that career, the plane crash that landed him in a series of Japanese POW camps where he was brutalized and starved until you can’t understand how he endured–all of that makes for a stirring tale. One well worth telling, but still one of a legion of such sagas of the human capacity for enduring and inflicting suffering.
Not to belittle the genre. We need reminding of events like the Nazi and Soviet horrors and the lesser known brutality of the Japanese empire to help us remain vigilant against those who would replicated their ugliness. Especially when “those” are us.
I thought I knew plenty about WWII, but when we traveled through China and Thailand a few years back, I was surprised to find how bitterly the Japanese are still hated throughout Asia for their depredations. Every bit as savage, if less well-documented, than the European ones. A short tour through the prisoner barracks near the bridge over the River Kwai and the nearby graveyard (all the American bodies were taken home, but there were plenty of other nations represented, particularly those of the UK.) brought lumps to the throat and tears to the eye. Our Thai friend told of relatives beaten with sharp bamboo canes, pumped full of water till they exploded. I somehow escaped knowledge of the Rape of Nanking (WW Sept. 8, 2007) until a guide in Singapore told of what happened to her family there.
Still, I’m a little tired of reading the same story over and over. The difference with Unbroken comes after Louie Zamperini comes home. Here’s where Hillenbrand’s trenchant prose and relentless research really paid off for me. She caught Louie at a great time, near the end of his long, productive, and active life. Many of the principals in his story were still alive or only recently deceased, and Louie was an obsessive scrapbooker, so she had plenty of material to work with. However, she went well beyond his immediate circle and explored the fates of his Japanese tormenters and guardians, the guards who beat him and those who did what they could to protect him. This variety of perspectives enriches the book tremendously.
However, Hillenbrand’s most important contribution is her account of the post-war horrors the veterans faced. We’ve been treated to a recent spate of accounts of the virtues and heroism of what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation. Well and good. But that view tends to ignore or downplay the high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and mental/emotional disorders that afflicted the returning veterans and POW’s. I’ve even heard the opinion that the current generation of soldiers is soft for complaining so much about PTSD and the like when their forebears just picked up and went on with life. Not at all so for huge numbers, and not at all so for Louie Zamperini.
To me, the real story of Unbroken happens after the war, though it would be impossible to appreciate the after without knowing the before and during. From her afterword, it sounds as if there is another story behind the writing of Unbroken–the story of Hillenbrand’s own illness during its creation, and I’d like to know that sometime. But this story is Louie’s, and a grand one it is.