Editor’s Note: The following prayer was given to me by a World War II POW I had the honor of interviewing many years ago. He spent two years in the German POW camps. Of the 27,000 Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese, a shocking 40 percent died in captivity, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. That compares with just one percent of American prisoners who died in German POW camps.
A Prisoner’s Prayer
O God, My Creator and Protector, I know that thou art with me and so I adore thee, body and soul with complete submission to thy will. Thou hast save me from death which has overtaken many of my companions, and has permitted me to be taken as a prisoner of war, I will bear patiently and hopefully for the love of Thee, with all difficulties of my state. Bless me and my companions here, grant us to live in peace comforting and consoling one another with fraternal love and charity. Bless my country and my Comrades-in-Arms, give me peace and protect me from melancholy and despair and above all keep me from offending Thee. My God I thank thee for all thy blessings and I will try to serve Thee as St. Paul has told us “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation and instant in prayer.” Amen.
It took me longer than most to work up the stamina to read Unbroken, the unflinching story of POW Louie Zamperini. I may never have read it were it not for Angelina Jolie bringing Zamperini’s story to the big screen. I would not allow myself to see the movie without first reading the book.
So I bought myself a copy and set about reading the book during the month of December. I doubt I could have picked a harder month to read Zamperini’s story. In addition to all the activity of Christmas, I had the nightmare of remembering my own father’s leaving for war during Christmas week 1965, only to return the following July in a metal casket, under the sanitary cover of Plexiglas.
I likely would never have gotten through the book were it not for author Laura Hillenbrand. The one thing I appreciate most in the writers I love best is their ability to layer a story. Hillenbrand is a thorough researcher and devotee to detail. Reading her writing is like sitting at my granny’s bedside listening to family stories. She knows everyone and their history and makes me care about all of it.
More than once, I turned the book over and wept, racking sobs. War does that to me. I used to feel bad about that kind of crying. Ever since I saw my father in that casket, I felt like I had to hide my tears, that they were something to be ashamed of, that they were a sign of weakness.
I got over that when I was touring with our family’s memoir, After the Flag has been Folded. I woke up one day and realized that all that guilt and shame I felt about crying over what war did to families was backwards. It wasn’t me that needed to quit crying. I lived in a nation full of people who didn’t know how to cry over the most horrendous of things. People who didn’t understand that crying over war is exactly what we all out to be doing. Maybe if we wept over it more, we’d wage war a lot less. My husband puts it this way: “Why do we think maiming, killing, raping and pillaging is the way to a better world?”
That’s a question we all ought to be pondering. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about as headlines announced today that the U.S. Combat mission in Afghanistan has come to a formal conclusion. President Obama says we are all safer, and our nation is more secure because of the blood shed. Presidents and elected officials always say that. Most of the time they say this, they are lying. They are just saying it because what else are they going to say to the American public after 2,200 soldiers have been slain and they’ve spent $1 trillion waging war?
I can tell you those family members who lost loved ones in Afghanistan aren’t convinced. They likely spent their Christmas wondering what it was all for? What did we gain? What did the Afghan people gain? Raise your hand if you think we are all safer now than we were in 2001.
It’s worth wailing over, I tell you.
So I wept for Louis Zamperini and his comrades stranded at sea for over a month. I wept again as I read about the torture he endured at the hands of Mutsurhiro Watanabe, aka The Bird. By all accounts Watanabe was depraved. Hillenbrand reports that abusing Zamperini was an act of perversion. The well-educated and well-bred Watanabe reportedly took sexual pleasure from torturing Zamperini in particular.
How Zamperini was able to survive in light of the starvation, dehydration, the relentless beatings, the dehumanizing tactics, the loss of self, the total brokenness of mind, body and soul, is the beauty of Unbroken. It is the thing that Hillenbrand captures and Jolie falls short of translating to screen.
Raw, oozing hope in the bleakest years of despair.
Much of which came in the aftermath of war, as is so often the case.
The thing about storytelling is the mythmaking that is inherent in any story. Hillenbrand makes clear that the Zamperini who went to war was not the man who came home from war. He gave himself over to alcoholism. He was abusive to the woman who loved him fiercely. He was unable to hold down a job. He was full of anger and hatred. He wanted one thing – to kill Watanabe. Anyone who has suffered abuse can appreciate the desire to kill their abuser. Zamperini became fixated on his abuser.
Jesus delivered him from all that. Hillenbrand speaks to all that in her book. Jolie fails to make redemption the focus of the film. Jeff Baker of The Oregonian sums up that failure:
Jolie concentrates on the abuse dealt out by the Japanese and not the religious conversion and redemption that made Zamperini’s lift so inspiring. It’s an understandable decision for artistic reasons and given the time constraints of a big-budget movie but one that reduces Zamperini to a cliche, a superhuman who can take a beating from 100 men and have a smooth, clean-shaven face in the next scene. What’s worse is that these scenes are staged and shot with no purpose other than to show this guy could really take a beating.
Baker is sterner about Jolie’s failure than I would be. My husband had not read Unbroken before seeing the movie and he came away with a fairly strong sense of Zamperini’s story.
But it is not the same story a person gets from reading the book. Read it. Then consider this.
When we as a voting public make a private contract with our elected officials to avert our eyes as they allow for, even advocate for the torture of others, we are no better a people than Mutsuhiro Watanabe.
We are as guilty as the man who made life a living hell for Louis Zamperini and hundreds of other POWs.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, a World War II story (Mercer University Press).