Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand, 2010) is the biography of Olympic distance runner and World War II prisoner of war survivor Louie Zamperini. It is both an enthralling action story and harrowing account of the strength of men, and a trove of history for people (like me) who have the luxury of not really knowing what happened during that dark time in our world. It is an utterly compelling book whose pages beg to be turned while being overwhelmingly heartbreaking. I could not put it down.
After surviving a plane crash, 47 days on a raft, shark attacks (dude punches a shark in the nose!), starvation, and dehydration, Louie comes to be imprisoned by the Japanese only to be robbed of the one thing he’s managed to hold onto dearly: dignity. “This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness;” Hillenbrand writes, “to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind… Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.” Reading about these humiliations carried out by the Japanese, you start to understand the true meaning of the phrase “a fate worse than death.”
Hillenbrand has a simple style that allows the full weight of the atrocities to come through. I appreciate that she notes where discrepancies in historical accounts exist and includes a thorough list of endnotes. It reminds me that I’m reading an account of something that actually happened and not a historical narrative where creative liberty was taken to in order to maintain the reader’s attention. There is no added drama…it is not needed.
I am amazed. I cannot fathom treating another human being the way Louie describes how he was treated by the Japanese. What causes another person to believe that this is right? What brings about such impassioned hatred? Such blindness to humanity? Such evil? Are some born this way? Or are they taught? These questions are not limited to the events of Louie Zamperini’s life – they are integral to every civil rights movement, from Apartheid, to gay rights, to school shootings and police killings of young black citizens today. I do not understand what makes some believe that such action is warranted. I don’t think I ever will.
Part of me feels an intense amount of guilt reading a book like this, curled up on my couch, sipping on tea, consuming it as entertainment. I cannot help but feel both utterly horrified and helpless at the barbarity committed against Louie and his fellow captives (and I have little doubt we have treated others similarly on our side of wars). I cling to the notion that there is something more than mere diversion to be gained from the telling and reading of such stories. I can only hope that, in reading this, we learn a little more about what humans are capable of, both in good ways and in bad, that we take the strengths of these men and the cruelties of war into our hearts, and that we strive to never repeat the mistakes made in our collective civilization’s past. This is why we tell our stories. This is why we read.