World War II

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.

 

Book Review – The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk woke me up to the concept of the epic American novel. The Winds of War traced a naval family’s experiences from the summer of 1939 through the Pearl Harbor attack. A magisterial work of historical fiction resulted.

In the process, Mr. Wouk created the most unique literary character I’ve ever encountered in Captain Victor Henry. In a way, he reminded me of Forrest Gump. The captain always seemed to find himself in the middle of many major historical events; at least the ones leading up to the Second World War. While he longed to command a battleship, the brewing “winds of war” swept him up into a fascinating series of positions. At the book’s beginning he received the post of US Naval Attaché in Berlin. Later he travelled to the UK where he “observed” a bombing raid on Berlin. Following that he received reassignment to Moscow during the German invasion. While serving in these varied locales, he met the war’s most influential figures including Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Interestingly, of all the people he encountered, he only experienced nervousness prior to meeting Churchill.

Of course, Captain Henry’s interactions with FDR served as the sine qua non of the book. In fact, he first met this iconic historical figure during one of his first naval assignments. Here are the captain’s recollections of that encounter prior to meeting Roosevelt the President.

He was wondering whether the President would remember him, and hoped he wouldn’t. In 1918, as a very cocky Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had crossed to Europe on a destroyer. The wardroom officers, including Ensign Henry, had snickered at the enormously tall, very handsome young man with the famous family name, who made a great show of using nautical terms and bounding up ladders like a seadog, while dressed in outlandish costumes that he kept changing. He was a charmer, the officers agreed, but a lightweight, almost a phony, spoiled by a rich man’s easy life. He wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous. (Page 148)

The descriptions in this passage showed that the author performed significant research while writing this book. This attention to detail continued in the scenes describing the German invasion of Poland, the discussions over America’s support of the British prior to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Russia.

In an acknowledgement to the time period, Mr. Wouk referenced the plight of Europe’s Jews. In the most disturbing quote in the book, a Jewish historian presented his thoughts on why Christians persecuted Jews.

“He’s a Jew’s Jesus,” said Jastrow. “That was my point.”

“Then tell me one thing,” said Rabinovitz. “These Europeans worship a poor murdered Jew, the young Talmud scholar you wrote about so well—to them he’s the Lord God—and yet they go right on murdering Jews. How does a historian explain that?”

In a comfortable, ironic, classroom tone, most incongruous in the circumstances, Jastrow replied, “Well, you must remember they’re still mostly Norse and Latin pagans at heart. They’ve always chafed under their Jewish Lord’s Talmudic morals, and possibly take out their irritation on his coreligionists.” (Page 818 – 819)

            The author related most of the story through the exploits of various Americans. He still cleverly fit the German perspective into the novel. Mr. Wouk created a fictitious book titled World Empire Lost written by a German general of his creation, Armin von Roon. He wove it into the narrative through Captain Henry’s postwar translation. He entered the German frame of mind through comments such as, “the one war crime is to lose” (Page 859) and “Churchill was a Hitler restrained by democracy.” (Page 247) He contrasted this with lines such as the following that Captain Henry delivered to FDR, “Mr. President, the quality of mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.” (Page 149)

The Winds of War ended following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Wouk resumed the Henry family saga in the sequel, War and Remembrance. With that acknowledgement, while I enjoyed the reading, I didn’t find the book strong enough to stand on its own. I’d classify it as more of an adventure story since I didn’t get a sense of the characters changing during the course of the story. I detected shades of submariner Byron Henry maturing at the end of the book, however, but not to the point it would justify concluding it.

I applaud the author for crafting a novel this complex and making it reasonably realistic. All of the major characters possessed involved story lines. These multifarious elements help explain why The Winds of War came in at close to 900 pages. While lengthy, I enjoyed the book so much it inspired me to read War and Remembrance. That tome contains close to 1500 pages. If that one’s as good as the first volume, I hope I still remember The Winds of War when I finish.  

 

Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?

In Support of Freedom

On June 6, 1944 the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain and Canada stormed the Normandy beaches of France. The object of this endeavor wasn’t simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to defend the very concept of freedom itself. We owe the combined air, sea and land forces of the Allied forces an immense debt of gratitude for what they did for us that day.

American historian Daniel Walker Howe once wrote, “When looking back at the past, things have an air of inevitability about them.” To put it generously, victory on D-Day was uncertain at best. Landing craft faced stormy seas crossing the English Channel. The logistics of coordinating an invasion this complex without the benefit of computers or satellite technology astonishes the modern mind. Upon reaching the European mainland forces then had to contend with Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defenses. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, even drafted a statement taking personal responsibility for the Allied defeat.

The fact that I have the freedom to write this and you have the freedom to read it shows that D-Day succeeded.

While drinking my morning coffee I reflected on this pivotal point in human history. I recalled the many afternoons I spent with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. He served in the 79th Infantry Division during the Second World War. Among the liberating forces, his unit was the second of what would become Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army. While the “Cross of Lorraine” division didn’t take part in the initial landings, it did deploy in France on 12 June.

Several years ago on 6 June I told my grandfather’s story to a navy veteran with whom I work. Since my grandfather didn’t enter the fight on D-Day the man joked, “He had it easy!” Mr. McKeon and his two Purple Hearts would’ve disagreed.

While remembering my grandfather’s war stories I thought it sad so few WWII vets remain. I felt how nice it would be to thank one for his/her service on the 71st anniversary of D-Day. Just then an elderly African-American gentleman entered the café. The man wore a baseball cap with the words WWII Veteran embroidered on the front.

I thanked him for his service. He kindly smiled and shook my hand. “If it wasn’t for the support of people like you, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

I speak with a lot of veterans. They’re always very appreciative of the recognition, but this man’s comments really surprised me. I recall my grandfather telling me about the racism in the military during the 1940’s. All Americans know the social climate that existed here prior to the Civil Rights movement. It made me contemplate what kind of homecoming this veteran received upon returning from the war.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank a World War II veteran today. If you don’t happen to encounter someone who served in that conflict, there are plenty of veterans around. When you see one, please let them know how much you appreciate their service to our country.

Let us never forget: without the support of people like them on 6 June 1944, our freedom wouldn’t have made it.

Book Review – How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle by Gideon Rose

It’s difficult to find both a more challenging and somber topic to analyze than American foreign policy. In 2010’s How Wars End, Gideon Rose displayed an exceptional grasp at explicating various diplomatic foibles. He framed his narrative through poor decisions policymakers made during wartime. Their paucity of acumen led to choices with harrowing unforeseen consequences. In the cases of World War I and the Gulf War, these assessments germinated the seeds that grew into much larger conflicts.

I’ve never written this before, but what really stood out about this book came before the actual narrative began. Rose’s dedication, “To the victims of bad planning”, summarized the entire story in just six words. Hemmingway once said he could write a novel in that many terms. Fortunately, for us foreign policy junkies, Rose included an additional 287 pages of actual text.

I discovered Rose’s choice of an opening quote quite telling, as well. He chose a line from military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. It read:

No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.    

In essence, this re-phrases his dictum that, “war is politics by other means.” I liked the way the author approached the subject. Regrettably all of the examples he cited demonstrated leaders not following von Clausewitz’s advice.

One observation deeply troubled me. The author described how a number of wartime leaders didn’t base policies on informed assessments. Rose described Franklin Roosevelt as a capricious decision maker.

FDR once admitted, “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does…I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths….” In foreign as in domestic policy, he was addicted to improvisation, creating a system that concentrated decisionmaking (sic) power in his hands and gave him the utmost flexibility. (Page 76)

            FDR also took a cynical approach to foreign policy.

Some have argued that “both before and during the war, what best explains Roosevelt’s foreign policies was his inclination to mirror American public opinion.” Clare Booth Luce expressed this view succinctly. “Every great leader” during the war, she was once described as saying, “had his typical gesture—Hitler the upraised arm, Churchill the V sign. Roosevelt? She wet her index finger and held it up.” (Page 77)

            Other leaders also displayed unorthodox styles. The author described George W. Bush as such:

“I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player,” Bush told journalist Bob Woodward in 2002, and in retrospect this seems a crucial fact about the Bush presidency. As one of his press secretaries would later put it, “President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader. He is not one to delve deeply into all the possible policy options—including sitting around and engaging in extended debates about them—before making a choice. Rather he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq.” The problem was exacerbated by Bush’s temperament, which prized certitude and resolve and scorned second guessing and dissent of any kind. Throw in a penchant for bold, “consequential” decisions rather than “small ball”, and the result was an accident waiting to happen. (Page 263)

            Decisions have consequences. Rose attributed the postwar break-up of the Allied coalition to Roosevelt’s management style. He failed to plan what would happen if the Soviet Union left it following the end of the war. Bush’s demeanor led to the Iraq War. I don’t know whether the author intended to do this or not. I recognized some parallels between Bush 43’s optimistic view of the Iraq situation and that of Bush 41. The latter “planned” that “someone” would overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

I also thought Rose espoused some original and erudite analyses. He wrote the following about the end of the First World War.

In later years, it became a truism in many circles that the harshness of the Versailles Treaty and American failure to join the League doomed the world to a cycle of instability, tyranny, and war. With generations of hindsight, however, the treaty seems more balanced now than it did then, a mixture of discordant elements that was neither Carthaginian nor Metternichian .(Page 48)

Whenever I read or hear about the Treaty of Versailles, text from John Maynard Keynes’ scathing criticism in The Economic Consequences of the Peace enters my mind.  I’d like to learn more about Rose’s views on it; perhaps in his next book?

I personally recall the acerbic press condemnation of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s performance in Iraq. While acknowledging its failings, Rose presented a more balanced view of it.

The CPA, in short, was an improvisation. As Ali Allawi bitingly comments, it is “only explicable in terms of a cover for sorting out a post war ‘Iraq Policy,’ when none had existed prior to the invasion,” Nevertheless, for such an ill-starred, ad hoc, and perennially under resourced operation, Bremer’s outfit actually accomplished a decent amount during its brief life span. Despite all the mistakes it made and the bad press it received, it was in large part a well-intentioned, serious attempt to run the country, and a marked improvement on the administration’s previous efforts in this regard. (Page 250)

            I found How Wars End to be a masterful study of the tragedies of deficient planning. Modern policy makers ignore it at their peril. While nothing can be done to ameliorate the mistakes of the past, the next crisis is always on the way.

The Keegan Next Door

We always hear these stories about living next door to an unassuming person with a mysterious secret: one that makes you say, “I can’t believe it! I’ll never look at that person the same way again!” I’ll let you in on a little secret about me. This will be just between us, so don’t tell anybody, but I just might be the Keegan next door. While I don’t claim to have the same depth or breadth of knowledge as the great military historian Sir John Keegan, I just might have some interesting tidbits of information about the subject that I gleaned from, of all things, my research into my own family genealogy. I’ll share some of them with you.

It’s always amazed me the wealth of genealogical information a person can find just looking around his/her attic. My Great-Grandfather, Mike Stephany, served in the First World War. I found a lot of information about his service without leaving the house. I have the pair of binoculars he used while serving in combat. When I was a kid I felt privileged that I was the only person my own age who had an actual pair of them. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to really appreciate the genuine historical artifact they were. His unit number “313 F(ield) A(rtillery)” is stamped on the case. It’s a very interesting and humbling experience to hold something that he used while serving our country in combat.

While the binoculars are nice, the real mother lode is a book published in 1920 that my great-grandfather owned. It’ called A History of the 313th Field Artillery, U.S.A. This was an absolute treasure trove for me as a military historian/genealogist. The chapters were written by various officers who served in the unit. It provided a very graphic account of what day-to-day life was like for the men of the 313th Field Artillery. It’s still in print today if you want to check it out. There are several books with a similar title. Col. Charles Herron is one of the authors of this one. I’d recommend it to fans of Sir John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. It also features numerous pictures that show the lugubrious desolation of the French landscape during the Great War. Aside from the first hand information about military history, there is a section in the back that lists everyone who served in the unit. This is the part where I learned that my great-grandfather was promoted to Private First Class on the very last day of the war! (November 11, 1918)

Another artifact I have is my maternal grandfather’s, Jack McKeon’s, helmet that he wore during the Second World War. I also have his Purple Heart. When people see the helmet, they don’t need to ask me why he received it. The helmet has an entry and exit wound. The metal exterior is just as mangled today as it was when my grandfather was hit in 1944. I remember him telling me the story of why he still had the helmet. He said that when he was wounded the army told him to turn in the helmet so they could give him a replacement. He refused. Since the helmet saved his life, he insisted on finishing the war with it. When my grandfather said something it wasn’t open for discussion, so the army relented and let him keep the helmet. When the war was over and my grandfather received his discharged stateside, the ordinance officer told my grandfather to give him the helmet as it was the property of the U. S. Government. My grandfather answered by saying that army told him to turn in the helmet when he was wounded due to the damage. That convinced my grandfather that the army felt the helmet lacked value and didn’t have any need for it, anyway. He demanded to keep it. Today that helmet is sitting on my bureau.

There’s another lesson I picked up from my combination of military history with genealogy: I mentioned that my grandfather told stories. One of his favorite topics of conversation was his experience in the Second World War. I remember when I was a teenager who loved history, I’d walk the mile over to his house and listen to him tell me all about it. Looking back over that now, it’s amazing how something like history can being together people two generations apart. My grandfather also had a book about the history of the unit he served in during the Second World War. (He served in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division for you history buffs out there.) I inherited it when he passed away twenty five years ago. I’ve read countless books on military history, but in all this time, I’ve never read that one. In retrospect, maybe I liked spending time with him more than I liked hearing his war stories.

I don’t claim to be the next Sir John Keegan—his blog is certainly more popular, ahem–, but I have learned a number of things about military history that most people don’t know simply by looking at artifacts in my own possession. If you’re interested in the subject, take a look around your home. You probably have a number of unique items with a story to be told. They could very well be things you see every day. (As I’m writing this from my father’s office I’m looking at my dad’s medals from the Viet Nam War. He has the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Army Commendation Medal among others.) If you take the time to tell that story who knows: in a couple of years people won’t be calling you the Keegan Next Door they just might be calling the next military historian the you next door.

Book Review: Laura Hillenbrand – Unbroken

If you think you’ve had a bad day you’ve got to read this book. Without a doubt Laura Hillenbrand detailed the most moving testament to the power of the human spirit possibly ever written. In this biography that read like a novel, the author related the remarkable life story of Louie Zamperini. Hillenbrand wrote, “From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel.” In the rest of her narrative she proceeded to show just how much these skills would aid Zamperini in later life.

Zamperini competed in the 5000 meter distance event in the 1936 Olympics. Without doubt a great accomplishment, but what really made him noteworthy came later. Following his time as an athlete he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force just before the Second World War. This decision would shape his entire future.

Hillenbrand related how Zamperini’s plane crashed in the Pacific, ironically, while searching for another downed plane. At this point the book became impossible to put down. Zamperini endured hardships that would defy reason had they not happened to him. Hillenbrand movingly described how Zamperini and two of his fellow airmen struggled to survive adrift in the South Pacific. At one point a Japanese plane even strafed him and his shipmates. I found my hands shaking as I read this passage.

Zamperini and one of the men on the raft survived for 47 days at sea. Hillenbrand had the following thoughts on how they did the miraculous.

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in the efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.

…and then the real horror started. Louie and Phil landed in Japanese occupied territory where soldiers captured them. But it got even worse. Zamperini ended up getting transferred to a POW camp where a particularly sadistic guard—nicknamed “The Bird”—took a particular interest in harassing and torturing him. “The Bird” and his “fatal poison of irresponsible power” had a particular distain for Louie’s Olympic past. Hillenbrand wrote, “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.” But Zamperini and his fellow POWs decided, “If they were going to die in Japan, at least they could take a path that they and not their captors chose, declaring, in this last act of life, that they remained sovereign over their own souls.”

Hillenbrand’s did an outstanding job of researching the subject. She portrayed Zamperini’s ordeal in a compelling way without crossing into sensationalism. I really enjoyed how she interspersed stories of his family’s ordeal back in the U.S. with Zamperini’s tribulations. His relatives knew Louie’s plane crashed at sea, but they didn’t know what happened to him. At one point the military declared him Killed in Action. I thought incorporating the narrative about the family back home enhanced the emotional aspect of the story. Even though Louie’s relations weren’t brutalized by Japanese guards, they suffered almost as much as he did by not knowing his fate.

This is one of those things where due to the length of the book a reader knows that Zamperini survived. It demonstrated Hillenbrand’s proficiency as a writer that I found myself anxiously devouring every word to find out what happened next.

Like many people who experience a dreadful situation, Zamperini returned home to find solace in alcohol and resentment. “During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.” Hillenbrand also added, “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Without question, the most interesting point in the book came near the end. Zamperini travelled to Japan in 1998 and wanted to meet the Bird. (The later had evaded authorities and lived in the open at the time.) In spite of the Bird’s refusal to see him, Zamperini still forgave him.

The only thing I could suggest for improving this story occurred in the section following Zamperini’s return him. He drank heavily, battled post traumatic stress disorder, and these factors put a tremendous strain on his marriage. His wife made him attend a religious revival meeting and then suddenly Zamperini gave up drinking and let go of his anger. For me this passage seemed a little cliché. Hillenbrand did note that while adrift at sea Zamperini made a promise to God that he’d live a righteous life if he survived. He recalled this after one of the services. I thought this section of the book too quick. Hillenbrand wrote, “At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” I learned a lot about Zamperini’s physical ordeals, I thought this would’ve been a great opportunity to analyze his dark night of the soul in more depth.

After reading Unbroken I felt guilty every time I told someone I had a “bad day.” It wouldn’t be possible to have a worse day than Louie Zamperini; and that could be from any period between his plane crashing and his learning to forgive his enemies. How did he do it? If I had to select one memorable line from the book to answer it would be the following:

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.

There is no greater testament to the power of human dignity than the story of Louie Zamperini. Mr. Zamperini celebrated his 97th birthday this past January 26th.