My Reflections on Unbroken

Wise people say “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep “, but perhaps the very purpose of promises lies in the will to fulfil them.

Seeing myself lose gratitude for the life I was living, I decided to pick up a book which could sprout in me the feeling of being fortunate. Thanks to my trusted gauge Goodreads, I picked up Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand as my guide.

The book describes the story of former Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini and his experiences during WW2 .The initial part of the book illustrates a restless, relentless troublemaker Louie. He has a knack for getting into trouble and the gift to let himself free from any situation. Due to his headstrong brother, he lets go of his insincerity and enters professional running. The story of a Zamperini’s rise to an Olympic runner hooks one to the book. The story itself along with the crisp focus and description of the events makes his early life a thrilling and an inspiring read.

The second part describes his time as a commander in the US Air Force. The description of the wartime life of a soldier is poles apart from that by Joseph Heller in Catch 22 which sublimely presents the imagery with an undercurrent of satire and humour. Hillenbrand presents an ominous setting to the dangers to which men put their lives forward to on each mission. The army’s allegiance to the nation and men is not exaggerated. Zamperini’s refusal to announce Japanese propaganda on radio under life-threatening conditions is a testament to this fact. By not revealing Mac’s weakness for food on their first night on the raft to the public, both Louie and Captain Phillips set a precedent for camaraderie and pay homage to Mac without whom survival would have been improbable.

After some successful missions, Louie finds himself in the Green Hornet which crashes into the Pacific during a search mission. Louie, Phil and Mac survive. Hope was all that they had in the ocean. Strength of mind over body drives Louie and Phil to spare no effort in devising ways to stay alive. Mac’s continually depressive thoughts could have been infectious but the pilot and the bombardier safeguard their minds from the abyss of negativity through mental creations.

Wise people say “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep “, but perhaps the very purpose of promises lies in the will to fulfil them. One cannot fail to notice that it was his ‘promise’ to his fiancée Cecy of marrying her after the war that drove Phil through such hardships.

The two men knew what fate held for them when they were found. I would not dwell on the mistreatment and the inhumane attitude of the Japanese guards towards POW’s. My mind could only conjure a blurry image of the atrocities committed, something I shall not be and would never wish to comprehend.

As I read through Louie’s experiences at various POW camps, my mind reeled back to his circumstances on the raft. Getting out of there, alone had been a harrowing experience. Did not experiencing further hardships at the hands of ‘The Bird’ go beyond the realm of human strength to endure such torture and condemnation? Although, both Louie and Phil being alive after World War 2 was fortunate coincidence, they both had gone through utter hopelessness and despair on the raft. I believe the ordeal was the grinding stone for their mental strength. They pushed through and came off even tougher rather than depleted. Louie is, too, quoted in the book saying that time in the ocean gave him mental space that he had never been given before. Phil believed that they wouldn’t last longer than the record of 23 days. They survived 47 days. It is no doubt that their days were doubled as each one had a companion to confide his feelings in.

After returning from war, Louie faces the horrifying nightmares of his torture. The end of his running career due to a broken ankle put out the sun to which Louie would rise to after the storm of dark dreams. With nothing to cling onto, he ends up on wild drinking sprees .He retreats into the selfish cocoon of curing himself of the demon, heedless to the lives around him.

Had he not injured his ankle, he probably would have even gone into professional running and represented America post war. But the question remains: How much would he have recovered from the horrors of war?

He was shaken up through Billy Graham’s preaching when he realized that he was not being a good man in society.His conversion to evangelical Christianity was not meant to serve himself but others. That perhaps is the essence of prayer. One does not take up prayer to only alleviate one’s own suffering, but to be the support in his neighbors’ trials and tribulations.

Plucking the life out of ‘The Bird’ would never have given him the redemption he hoped for. His visit to the prison guards in Sugamo served as the beacon of redemption during times of deep distrust and hatred. The unresentful interview of Watanabe shows us how he had still not given up the war inside him. Louie served as the living example of ‘Forgiveness rises above revenge’. Reading Louie’s story made me believe that perhaps the only true way to live happily is by being grateful. His name is secured in the annals of American athletics but the World shall look up to him as an epitome of forgiveness and redemption.

Where did I learn History ?

I had always wished to write this article as an engineering student, and not as a student of history. An engineering undergraduate student who his passionate about social sciences courses.

Yet, it was only after reading Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning book,’ All the light we cannot see‘ that I was compelled to write this article. The book provides a detailed account on how the rigours of WW2 impacted the daily life of the common citizen in France and Germany. The drive to express myself on this topic was the culmination of the various pictures painted in my mind through my various readings about the Indian Independence movement and World War 2. Caught up in a retrospective mode after having read the above-mentioned novel, thinking about the Indian scenario during the 1940’s,I asked myself, “Where had I learnt more? In my eighth grade, spending a year learning the Indian independence or during the three months which I spent reading the greatest novel on Indian Independence- Freedom at Midnight. What was more responsible for the sense and understanding of Indian Independence which I now possessed?”

The book viewed the independence movement as something more than a chapter in history. To me, the freedom movement became the reason for our existence, in ways more than the history course book taught.

Having studied history all the way from the 6th grade to the 10th grade, I could never really appreciate how significant the subject was. During my post analysis of historical novels, I was asking myself, “Were we really taught history? Do we really appreciate the value of our freedom? Why, in our quest for future growth, do we forget the basic qualities which had defined us; which had united us? ”

I could see that the biggest problem lay in the manner history was taught to us and the way in which it is still being taught. We have condemned history to a subject of rote learning, full of dates and timelines and weird names of dynasties, but in this muddle, we have undermined its basic importance. History is a work of art. To actually study the subject requires imagining earlier times, not through logic but through emotions. It requires feeling the sweat of resistors amidst the stench of burning rubble in Yugoslavia. It requires feeling the blind nationalistic fervour of the teenage soldier of the Hitlerjugend. It requires appreciating our present. It requires paying tribute to our previous generations who came through mammoth ordeals to leave behind a peaceful world.

To really feel and appreciate history, we are not required to remember dates and the names of our rulers; instead we need to read the poignant letter of the young soldier, in his dying moments, to his mother. We need to read the biographies of men who survived the concentration camps. We need to read the accounts of the atrocities at Gulag in Russia. We need to understand how India would have been, had Gandhi never been the idiosyncratic freedom fighter he was. These stories, these accounts is what is missing from the subject of history in today’s middle school. My ‘formal’ classroom history course had created a void about which I never knew. An understanding of this void only came through after I started filling it, by reading and watching the literary accounts of the survivors of the 20th century.

Being an Indian I have always felt that our nation has downplayed the value of our freedom. We know the price of freedom in terms of the number of martyrs, but have not yet understood the value of their sacrifice. This is a feeling which India will have to develop as one nation. We do pride on our peaceful existence among the multi-cultural ethnicities but only if we could remember the people who made it possible in times of savage racial abuse and bloodshed.

The solution to understanding history needs to start from the bottom up. It begins in the middle schools teaching history. The course should not be just numbers and dates. Schools and teachers will have to make efforts to screen documentaries and include historical accounts into history books.

Only when we understand our country’s history do we begin to appreciate our nation’s existence. 15th August and 26th January remain no more than holidays if we cannot remember the martyrs who sacrificed their lives at the altar of freedom. Only then do we keep up the spirit of the Amar Jawan Jyoti.