Monday, April 14, 2014

book review of "Unbroken"

My friend Buddy recommended Hillenbrand's latest book, based on some of the book's themes and how much I enjoyed the movie Life of Pi. Both books feature long periods of survival on the open sea, as well as human courage, surprising turns of events, and wrestling with the extent to which Providence is at work in trying circumstances. (I have not yet read Martel's book and the movie based on Hillenbrand's book is due out later this year.)

Her biography of Louis Zamperini largely focuses on his time in military service during World War II. Before that, Hillenbrand highlights a few parts of his childhood and devotes most of her time to his career as a world-class distance runner. He held records in the mile; was an early threat to break the four-minute barrier; and is still the youngest American Olympic qualifier for the 5,000 meters.

As an Air Force pilot, Zamperini survived an attack where his plane took 594 bullets. One of his later flights would crash into the Pacific Ocean. He and two other men survived the impact and spent 47 days on a raft. (Two of the three survived the journey, breaking the old record of 34 days at sea.) They drifted to an island controlled by the Japanese. Zamperini credits God's providence and their efforts to remain mentally engaged, peppering each other with questions.

He spends the rest of the war in a number of brutal POW camps. My only complaint about the book is the amount of time spent on the torture he endured (30% of the text). The descriptions are gruesome-- but far worse, quite repetitive. (For an experience in a much more relaxed POW camp, King Rat.)

How they survived is somewhere between a mystery, Providence, and a sustained hope based on Allied victory, stealing and sabotaging the Japanese as possible, and living one day at a time. Along the lines of the last factor, Zamperini said he would kill himself if he knew he had to go through those experiences again (321).

It was also surprising that they did not rise up and kill their most vicious captor, Watanabe, "The Bird". I kept imagining that the foreshadowing would lead to his demise (or at least the attempt). But they only made one modest attempt at it, trying to poison him.

After the war, the book picks up considerable pace and seems like a breath of (very) fresh air: a quick marriage to a younger woman, a tumultuous marriage/life as he struggled with alcohol, and his conversion at the famous Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles (369-376). His conversion story is paired with earnest wrestling about forgiveness (377-379, 389-397). Zamperini found that he had truly forgiven his captors-- testing it by seeing them in person. 

Hillenbrand purposes to contrast Zamperini's forgiveness and German POW treatment with Japanese POW treatment-- in terms of both torture and murder. Hillenbrand documents the differences in outcomes between German and Japanese POW's: 37% deaths vs. 1% (314-315, 346); thousands dying in forced marches and labor camps; "kill orders" to murder POW's when their positions were being over-run (272-273); and much higher hospitalization rates for those who did return home.

In part, Hillenbrand portrays this as due to the Japanese belief that surrender was shameful (291-292). One sees this in the kamikaze missions and their treatment of POW's. Beyond that, it gives credence to the belief that Japan would not have surrendered, without a full-scale invasion-- or the nuclear bombs that seemed to make resistance futile.

Two other thoughts here: 1.) Years ago, it struck me that many men would have died in an invasion of Japan. (I've read estimates of one million men.) And those men would not have been fathers for their children or their future children. It would have been a devastating loss for America. One of those men would have likely been my wife's grandpa. How sobering. 2.) On reading the book, it occurred to me why hatred of the Japanese would have been much greater than the Germans. In addition to racial differences, their prosecution of the war was despicable-- and outside supernatural forgiveness as experienced by people like Zamperini, would have naturally resulted in hatred of the Japanese.

-The man who designed the Olympic Village for Berlin in 1936 was a Wehrmacht captain and Jewish (31, 37). He committed suicide after learning he would be decommissioned after serving a role for propaganda.

-When the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, they were worried about Japan advancing as far as Chicago (52-54). There were air-raid alerts in SF; trenches were dug along the California coast; and schools in Oakland were closed. Moreover, Japan conquered a bunch of territory that day and the next, running into trouble only at Wake.

-Not surprisingly, battles deaths were dwarfed by friendly fire, weather and especially accidents (61, 80).

-Again, as in other books on the war I've reviewed by Ambrose and Atkinson, soldiers were noted for their sexual immorality (63, 67, 317; see also: 218's fortune-teller).

-Hillenbrand details Paul Tibbetts dropping the first atomic bomb (299). Tibbetts had cyanide in case he was caught. The bomb was 12 feet long and weighed 9,000 pounds. After dropping the bomb, Tibbetts turned as hard as he could and dove to pick up more speed. They were not sure that 43 seconds was enough time to get far enough away from the explosion.


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