Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken (2010) — a Review — Mainly regarding the Book’s Relevance to Three of Today’s Issues

© 2015 Peter Free


15 January 2015



An outstanding combination of relevant biography and history


Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) — a biography of Louie Zamperini (that is predominantly set in the Pacific Theater) — is not only a superbly written integration of voluminous and widely sourced material, but it retains surprising pertinence to three of today’s issues:



(1) American torture,


(2) the unattractive expedience of America’s forgetfulness about the importance of doing justice,




(3) China’s coming bout with Japan and the United States for dominance in the near-China eastern hemisphere.



Background — torture in the Pacific war


Most of the book is about torture, whether inflicted by circumstances (drifting for weeks in a life raft) or sadistic human beings (Japan’s prisoner of war camps).


Laura Hillenbrand does an impressive job of detailing what happened to Louie Zamperini and tens of thousands of prisoners. In quantitative terms:



Japan held some 132,000 prisoners of war . . . . Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four. Americans fared particularly badly, of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935 — more than 37 percent — died.


By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by Nazis and Italians died.


Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway.


Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiences, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism. And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases.


Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.


In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese massacred all 5,000 Korean captives in Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan.


They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.


© 2014 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) (at pages 321-323 of the 2014 Random House paperback edition) (paragraphs split)


Regarding the aftermath of this experience on survivors:



The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity, a remarkable statistic given that roughly three-quarters of the men had weighed just 159 pounds or less upon enlistment.


Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. At one chain of hospitals, doctors found a history of wet beriberi in 77 percent of POWs and dry beriberi in half.


Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage.


Respiratory diseases, from infections and exposure to unbreathable air in factories and mines, were rampant.


Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.


Nearly forty years after the war, more than 85 percent of former Pacific POWs in one study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized in part by flashbacks, anxiety, and nightmares.


And in a 1987 study, eight in ten former Pacific POWs had “psychiatric impairment,” six in ten had anxiety disorders, more than one in four had PTSD, and nearly one in five was depressed.


[A] 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls.


As of January 1953, one-third of former Pacific POWs were categorized as 50 to 100 percent disabled, nearly eight years after the war’s end.


© 2014 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) (at pages 354-355 of the 2014 Random House paperback edition) (paragraphs split)



Issue One — Unbroken’s relevance to America’s illegal and immoral use of torture in its “war in terror”


Specifics of the seemingly unending range and supply of Japanese torture methods populate Unbroken. Most of these include attempts to extinguish the human spirit. Hillenbrand is especially insightful on this subject on page 189 (of the 2014 paperback edition).


One of these means of abuse was identical to America’s supposedly non-criminal waterboarding. Others paralleled those that captives suffered through at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and during the CIA’s recent torture spree.


Anyone who reads Unbroken, and comes away with the idea that American torture is not immoral and illegal is an idiot and probably a sadistic one at that.



Issue Two — after a few years of trying to find and try Japan’s war criminals, the United States government decided that doing justice was outweighed by the need to recruit Japan as an ally against the Soviet Union


By 1958, America released the war criminals who were in jail and stopped looking for those still at large. They all got amnesty. One of the worst of these men was never punished. (See page 400 of the 2014 Random House paperback.) This paralleled the way that the United States dealt with “useful” Nazis.


If all this reminds of the Obama Administration’s convenient refusal to look at America’s own recent war crimes, one can be excused. Government leaders never know when they might need a pass on unjustifiable behavior. So what’s a “few” ruined lives in comparison to that?



Issue Three — Unbroken’s relevance to today’s conflict between China and Japan


This is the one implication that most Americans will miss, given our ignorance of affairs outside our borders.


China suffered even more than the United States did at Japan’s hands before and during World War II. Indeed, China’s death total of close to 20 million people was second only to the Soviet Union’s equally inconceivable loss of 22 to 28 million.


Hillenbrand wrote of one aspect of this butchery, Japan’s 1937 “Rape of Nanking”:



The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: All prisoners are to be executed.


What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them.


Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape.


The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants.


Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.


© 2014 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) (at page 97 of the 2014 Random House paperback edition) (paragraph split)




The above-mentioned dog mauling tactic should remind Americans of our own use of canines to torment allegedly terrorist captives.


If the United States thinks that China and its people have forgotten the way Japan treated them during the War, it should think again. My guess is that China’s patient technocratic ruling group is going to roll a little payback into its plans for pushing Japan (and the United States) down the Pacific pecking order.



The moral? — Unbroken is a superb book with ethical and geopolitical relevance, even today


Laura Hillenbrand is a authorial star in her portrayal of Louie Zamperini’s remarkable life.


I laud her especially for the way that she populates her writing with other memorable people, their suffering, and history’s forceful sweep. Unbroken demonstrates a remarkable combination of sensitivity, footnoted scholarship, and graceful writing.