I am reading a book a friend recommended called To End All Wars*. I wasn't crazy about it at first because it's a first-hand account of British POWs of the Japanese near the end of World War II - not the lightest or most pleasant reading - but I've gotten about half-way through and I love it, so I had to share a few passages.
Just to set the stage, over the course of 4 years, from 1941 to 1945, the Japanese captured 60,000 Allied prisoners and 270,000 Asian (Malay, Singaporean, Chinese, and a few other nationalities) prisoners and forced them to build what is known as the Railway of Death, so named because of the 80,000 prisoners who died during it's construction. Conditions in the prison camps were, unsurprisingly, horrific and the Japanese were known for their "callous brutality" towards their prisoners.
At one point in the book, the author, Ernest Gordon, makes a striking comment about the Japanese and the Allied powers:
"Both sides undoubtedly justified their cruelties as serving to shorten the war and improve their chances of winning it, as well as saving the lives of their own kind. The result in each case was the same. In the case of the Japanese, the effect on the perpetrators was to render them callous to man's individual humanity to man. In the case of the West, the effect on the perpetrators was also that of initiating an ignoble callousness to human suffering" (43).
Later on, Gordon describes this callousness and how it affected the prisoners themselves:
p. 73: "As conditions [in the jungle prison camp] steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the slope of degradation.
...Existence had become so miserable, the odds so heavy against survival, that, to most of the prisoners, nothing mattered except to survive. We lived by the law of the jungle, 'red in tooth and claw' - the law of survival of the fittest. It was a case of 'I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else'."
Shortly after this point, a change begins to take place in the camp. Instead of an 'every man for himself' attitude, one man here and another man there started watching out for and taking care of his "brothers". Here's the best part:
"Death was still with us - no doubt about that. But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness and pride were all anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men" (105-106).
I'm not finished with this book, but I highly recommend it, if only for this powerful transformation that took place. Happy reading!
*Gordon, Ernest, To End All Wars, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), 2002. Originally published in Great Britain, 1963, under the title, Through the Valley of the Kwai.