Here’s a perfect book for Memorial Day—war through the eyes of Louis Zamperini and what he endured.
I was left with the question: what kind of misery is a man willing to inflict on another?
Yes, there’s The Bird (who tormented and brutalized Zamperini’s relentlessly as a prisoner of war) but there’s also The Bomb. I’m not exonerating or justifying anyone or any action. Abu Ghraib, for instance, as just one example. Waterboarding, another. No side is guiltless.
If you want a definition of “tough,” if you want a portrait of what a “soldier” is capable of enduring, what an individual does on behalf of their country, look no further than Zamperini.
Tough physically, even tougher mentally. The arc of Zamperini’s multi-faceted, epic life is, quite frankly, hard to comprehend. Only Sebastian Junger’s “War” gave me that same sensation of the human being’s eye-level view of war. “War” made battle visceral. You internalized it. You felt what it was like to be ground down into a determined fighting machine. “Unbroken” does the same thing but it travels farther, has more sweep. (It’s no wonder there’s a movie in the works.) Zamperini is confronted with so many varied situations that force him to rely on his mind to survive.
Five weeks into their long drift on a raft that saved them from the wreckage of their downed bomber in the Pacific Ocean, Louis and his friend Phil (Russell Allen Phillips), find peace. And quiet. Calm heads. The two have overcome so much and managed to find ways to survive, to find nourishment where there is apparently none. “They continued quizzing each other, chasing each other’s stories down to the smallest detail, teaching each other melodies and lyrics, and cooking imaginary meals.”
Louie, writes Hillenbrand, “found that the raft offered an unlikely intellectual refuge. Here, drifting in almost total silence, with no scents other than the singed odor of the raft, no flavors on his tongue, nothing moving but the slow procession of shark fins, every vista empty save water and sky, his time varied and unbroken, his mind was freed of an encumbrance that civilization had imposed on it. In his head, he could roam anywhere, and he found that his mind was quick and clear, his imagination unfettered and supple. He could stay with a thought for hours, turning it about.”
Zamperini, a former U.S. Olympic team track star, has a long journey ahead. Surviving the raft ride is just the beginning. There is torture coming, in the P.O.W. camps. There are scenes in the camp that are, quite simply, impossible to imagine. Hillenbrand calls these trials “incomprehensible degradation and violence.” Hard to disagree. And then there’s Louie’s long struggle to re-enter society once the war comes to a close. In some ways, that’s the biggest battle of all—finding himself again.
I’m not giving anything away. There is no spoiler alert needed. We know from the beginning—the title alone telegraphs it—that this story arc involves a triumph of will and off-the charts determination.
After all the physical abuse his body endures, there’s one last hill to climb at home for Zamperini—and that’s opening his mind up to the possibility that his wife might be right, that the touring preacher (a very young Billy Graham) might hold the key to getting Louie’s life back on track. Whether you’re religious or not, Louie has endured so much you want to see him open himself up to the outside help. You want him to find peace—and stability. He has managed so much with the power of his mind, he needs Graham to get him over the toughest part, “normal” life at home and overcoming the monsters that chased him down in his nightmares, day and night.
The pleasure (tough word to use) of Unbroken is in the details and Hillenbrand’s masterful storytelling voice. Like Seabiscuit, another non-fiction classic, Unbroken is a compelling book. Memorial Day, with its roots from our own post-Civil War era, is about honoring those who died. But it clearly is also about those who fought and survived. It’s hard to imagine there are many stories as powerful as Zamperini’s.