As I was closing out the final pages of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken on the train last week, a woman stopped me to ask how I was liking it. I replied that it takes it out of you—this book whose every chapter is more grim than the one before. “But it’s okay right?” she responded, shopping bags and Starbucks cup in tow. “Because he goes free in the end?”
It’s a credit to our threshold for human suffering that a World War II bombardier lost at sea for 47 days and then imprisoned in Japanese POW camps for more than two years is considered a victor in his life story. Yes, Louis Zamperini, the recently deceased subject of Hillenbrand’s wildly successful 2010 biography, was eventually freed. Yes, he lived to tell the tale. But a man does not walk away from such experiences cleanly, and the effects of Louie’s POW life on his post-POW life are apparent down to Unbroken’s very last page.
Much of this book’s plot has become common knowledge, perhaps by virtue of the comprehensive movie trailer, perhaps because of various interviews with Louis in the last few years. So I’ll sacrifice the time I’d usually spend on plot summation to jump directly to Hillenbrand, an author whose own limitations (chronic fatigue syndrome and its attendant symptoms have kept her homebound for years) are her personal testament to human resilience in the face of adversity. I’ve never read anything by LH before, and was pleased to find in her, like Erik Larson (author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts) a penchant for research that borders on the insane (Unbroken ends with 8 pages of detailed acknowledgments and 40 pages of reference notes). This book is so thoroughly executed that it reads like fiction, and Hillenbrand’s dedication to describing 60-year-old events in vivid detail is beyond impressive. Of course, she had help—a pertinent quote from Louie kicks off the book’s acknowledgments section: “I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” he tells her, “because I can talk.”
There are many things to unpack in Unbroken—shark-punching among them—but in the interest of time I want to focus on one: the treatment of POWs in Japan during World War II. In a book not short on hardship, Zamperini’s descriptions of what he endured at the hands of his prison guards are by far the worst, the most memorable and the ones you find yourself thinking about days and weeks after the fact. At a series of ever-worsening camps, and under the supervision of ever-worsening personnel, Louie is beaten daily, starved, humiliated and demoralized. He watches friends and peers suffer and die around him, if not from their abuse then from preventable diseases whose symptoms go ignored by the guards. Any small act of defiance—and there are many; Louie is a stubborn and mischievous kind of guy—earns excess abuse, and there are times when Louie is so close to death that it seems unfathomable he isn’t praying for it.
There are outliers in the camps, guards or civilian workers whose decency shines through, and whose small acts of kindness most likely saved POW lives. There are also bad eggs, men so clearly predisposed to violence and abuse that their roles as disciplinarians seem both apropos and offensive. As a matter of course, though, the conditions at the camps were abysmal, and the prison rules—whether enforced routinely or with uniquely horrifying zeal—were a failure of humanity as much as policy.
Reading Unbroken so soon after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “torture report” is an exercise in déjà vu. That report, or rather, the 500-page executive summary of a still-unreleased 6,700-page report on CIA “enhanced interrogation techniques,” is, like Unbroken, an opus on human cruelty. Suspected terrorists (or, as was documented at length in the report, detainees no longer suspected of terrorism but whom operatives refused to release) were mocked, taunted and beaten. Their families and loved ones were threatened—one man was told his mother would have her throat slit; another that his children would be killed. Detainees were forced to stand in stress positions for hours upon end; one was chained to a wall, standing, for 17 days; another spent 11 days in a coffin-sized box. Men were forced to stand on broken legs, kept in complete darkness and forced to go without sleep for—at least in one case—up to 180 hours. Waterboarding (mentioned in Unbroken as “the water cure”) was used with impunity, in one case more than 180 times. Detainees were force-fed through their rectums. On a smaller scale, in one-off mentions that suggest the work of particularly sadistic guards, mock executions were staged. At least one guard played Russian roulette with a detainee, and at least one detainee died from hypothermia caused by sitting on cold concrete unclothed.
Then there’s the secrecy. Much is made in Unbroken of the inability of POWs to communicate their abuses to the outside world. Guards went to great lengths to convince inspectors and the general public that POW treatment was decent, or at least in line with the Geneva Conventions, and the ordered precision of daily camp life belied the ease with which one could be abused for as little as an accidental glance. It would be years until the true scope of the damage was recognized, and even then few reparations could be made to the thousands of men whose lives had been wrecked. Many Japanese guards were tried and imprisoned or executed; just over a dozen of the worst offenders eluded authorities until their capture ceased being a priority (when the U.S. was ready to ally with Japan against Communism).
Likewise, perhaps the biggest bombshell in the torture report—particularly for those who have long suspected on some level that the U.S. employs torture—was the length the CIA went to to cover up the nature of their program, white-lying to the White House about the specifics of the techniques being used, and wholesale lying about those techniques’ efficacy.
Certainly in the context of Unbroken, and probably in the context of all of World War II, maybe even war in general, America has the upper hand on human decency; in one part of the book, a Japanese POW held in an American camp during the war refers to it as “lucky prison life.” Hillenbrand also documents the myriad ways in which POW abuse, or the massacre of POWs or civilians, was not only allowed but encouraged by the Japanese military. And yet I find it a slippery slope to say that the use of torture in one case is more acceptable than its use in another, or that we (America) are bad but they—Japan, Germany, North Korea, Iran, [insert country here]—are worse.
This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the differences between what the Japanese did, or what the Nazis did, and what Americans did in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and probably elsewhere. I understand that there is disparity between a policy that affected thousands during wartime—when the rules of engagement are supposed to be clear—and one that affected some 200 men when those same rules were perhaps more opaque. But the wrongness of these “enhanced” techniques is supposed to be universal, and to dismiss what happened at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo as the byproduct of the times, the errors of a runaway CIA drunk on power, is to miss the broader point: We have done what the war criminals in Unbroken were executed for. Except no American offender will ever see a court room or a jail cell.
I imagine there are some who will disagree with this assessment, who feel compelled to point out the facets of Japanese culture that lent themselves to extremism (see: the same arguments being made today about Islam). Hillenbrand certainly takes care to contextualize what happened to Zamperini by describing that culture, its celebration of domination and honor, and its disgust with surrender. But if America is going to trumpet its righteousness to the world—as we do, at every available opportunity—then surely we should be holding ourselves to the highest conceivable standard. Surely shrugging off what happened at Gitmo as the smallest evil in a long line of far worse global evils isn’t the way to live up to our expectations of ourselves. Surely we should be the first in line to say that there is no time for torture, no place for enhanced interrogation techniques. Surely we understand that our behavior shapes the way we are viewed in the world, and will shape how Americans are regarded in the countries of those we’ve abused. Surely we should see how the very notion of “exceptionalism” has been the driving force behind plenty of these conflicts.
Many will find in Unbroken a triumph of the human spirit, over every hardship that could possibly be thrown at a man and then some. It’s a more than fair assessment; Louie is a shining example of the kind of person we all hope we are inside, the kind whose commitment to living can withstand even the most trying of obstacles, whose compassion for others makes him a fabled figure in many a memory. But I find it important to also acknowledge Unbroken as a testament to human cruelty. As Hillenbrand writes:
The guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subject to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. 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.
Hillenbrand isn’t trying to preach; she never, in more than 400 pages, preaches. But the conclusions are there to draw all the same: that this is not what upstanding countries do, that this is not what upstanding people do. Certainly most don’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t. But to read Unbroken is to become familiar with the best and worst of humanity, our near limitless capacity for hope and our deeply frightening capacity for harm.
AUTHOR: Laura Hillenbrand
PAGES: 408 (in paperback, minus notes)
ALSO WROTE: Seabiscuit
SORTA LIKE: Life of Pi meets The Great Escape
FIRST LINE: “In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house in Torrance, California, a twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening.”