Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand has already had a great deal of ink spilled over it, and deservedly so. The masterful storytelling and elegant attention to detail mark this as a work of great skill and talent. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, whose dreams of a olympic shot were cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. He learns to fly the B-29 Liberator (a machine that is marvelously reconstructed by Ms. Hillenbrand), and after a number of tense sorties is shot down in the middle of the Pacific. For forty-six days, Mr. Zamperini and the other survivors of the down aircraft drifted through the boundless ocean, eking out a living only through the most astounding twists of fate. The currents carried them finally to the Marshall Islands, then under Japanese control.
The rest of the story follows Mr. Zamperini and his efforts to survive imprisonment as a Japanese prisoner of war. He is subjected to almost every kind of humiliation imaginable, but emerges on the other side to live a life full of contribution and generosity. Every twist in his story is one of a man who emerges from each challenge with a renewed sense of purpose, as though he had no real choice save to find a new place for himself in each new trial. The story will remain with you long after you put it down. But it got me to thinking about the legacy of the war, and Americans’ relationship to those events.
The Second World War and the bloody beginning of the last century more broadly is growing ever more remote to Americans. And it has a quality of legend to it; a sexiness if you will. WW2 was a “good” war. It’s soldiers and leaders constantly remembered as Americas’ greatest generation. This belief is dangerous too. It is too easy for us to compare our present circumstance to the melodrama of a Hitler or a Tojo. But Americans lived through the war very differently than the forces that clashed either against or alongside their nation. Americans remember the war through the stories of our grandparents, not through our shared suffering.
In the ever-turning wheels of time and civilization, the tragedies that the US endured were only superficially scarring – perhaps like the memories the British might have of the Boer Wars: a conflict that left nothing in London save books. Our cities survived, most of our population was untouched, and the lifestyle that Americans had become accustomed to went largely unmolested by the war. Our soldiers of course suffered enormously, but that sort of personal tragedy doesn’t scar the very land it touches in the same way that a ruined city and a thousand dead civilians might. In Budapest, one can still see the bullet holes in the buildings along the city’s imperial boulevards. Not so along Jacksonville Beach. Americans deal with the war as something of a legend that happened elsewhere. With each passing year, the conflict become more and more an intellectual exercise.
Despite this, we share a certain bond with the world from the experience, whether we know it or not. This begs the question, why do we lack more meaningful engagement with the peoples of the East? I find this lack surprising, given our overwhelming role in the Pacific theater. And there are stories there. Behind every Polynesian native dragged from their home, every Chinese family torn apart by Japanese tanks, every Korean conscript laborer is a story that Mr. Zamperini and his fellow POWs would find echoing so much of their own experience. The same can be said of their stories of resistance: the Philippine Guerrilla campaign against the Japanese was so effective that they never controlled more than half of the country, or the vicious campaigns of violence on the island of Borneo; these are legends that still haven’t penetrated our culture in the same way that the comparable experiences of countries like Germany and France have. The stories are endless that have yet to be told. And Unbroken reminded me of that.
I don’t mean for this to detract from the story that is told so wonderfully in Unbroken. But the book was also a pointed reminder that moments in history like World War Two are so full of drama precisely because the terror they carry with them is very real. And that same terror is unescapable and cannot but rip through the whole of human civilization. That is what makes these events great – that they are unescapable. The drama rests not in being overawed by degree, but in how people weather the challenges put before them. Everyone is swept along that tide, and our common humanity hides under those wave in its most extreme forms, both for good and for ill. War, no matter the verdict of history, is terrible. And part of me wept for the Zamperini that had to lose his shot at the olympics, even if it meant his story might not have inspired us the same way.