Eric Lomax’s “The Railway Man” And Today’s America
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
A few weeks ago I saw one of those lists of the best books on a subject. (I can’t remember where I saw it.) This list was about books on World War II, and may have been divided into various sublists. One of the listed books was Goodbye, Darkness, William Manchester’s memoir of war in the Pacific, which I read many, many years ago. Absent from the lists, to my surprise, was a book which, though it is little known, is certainly one of the greatest memoirs of World War II and has been praised to the skies by the likes of Paul Fussell and John Keegan. The absent book is With the Old Breed At Peleliu and Okinawa, by Eugene B. Sledge. Sledge, a Marine from Alabama, was about 20 years old when he entered the service. He later became a professor of biology in his home state. His book is an all time classic. It ranks in my judgment with two great books of the First World War. Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That and Siegfried Sassoon’s partially fictionalized Memoirs of An Infantry Officer. One would think Sledge’s memoir should be read by anyone and everyone with the slightest interest in WWII. How it got left off the list I saw escapes me. Perhaps the answer is ignorance of it.
Another book that, like Manchester’s, was on the list was one I had never heard of. It is called The Railway Man, by a Scotsman named Eric Lomax. The extremely apt subtitle is A POW’s Searing Account Of War, Brutality And Forgiveness. It was published in 1995 in both Great Britain and the U.S., by W. W. Norton in both countries apparently. I was attracted to it because the list said it was a memoir by a POW who worked on the Siam-Burma railroad, the railroad that the Japanese were building as part of a network that would connect Singapore to various Asian cities and, ultimately, to India, and that was immortalized in The Bridge Over The River Kwai. I have now read The Railway Man. It is a classic. It is wonderful.
Let me tell you about The Railway Man in the briefest possible, most overarching terms. Lomax was a young man who was in the British army and was captured at the fall of Singapore. While a prisoner doing repair and similar works on various types of vehicles, he was tortured mercilessly, as were colleagues, because they were found to have built a radio so that they could get news from the outside world, and, in Lomax’s case, also because the Japanese had discovered a map he had drawn. (Via the radio the POWs learned of the onward march of the Allies in Europe and the Pacific.) The torture and its mental effects beggar description. Suffice to say here that once Lomax and several others were individually beaten brutally, for amounts of time that apparently ranged up to an hour each, by several Japanese soldiers wielding the equivalent of pick handles. Some of the victims died more or less on the spot. At other times Lomax got water treatments -- one of them being the equivalent of the waterboarding done by the CIA in George Bush’s so-called war on terror. There were many other episodes of horrific torture. We don’t have to get into it any further.
After the war Lomax suffered for nearly 50 years from what has come to be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This had devastating effects on his psyche, his personality and in his dreams. One of the Japanese he could not get out of his mind was a small, slight man who was the interpreter when Lomax was being interrogated endlessly, and tortured, by a brute who was a member of the Kempeitai, which was in effect the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo. The interpreter was an accomplice to the continuous torture.
Lomax wanted to kill the interpreter.
In about the mid to late 1980s, I gather, Lomax learned who the interpreter was and that he was still alive. The interpreter, Nagase Takashi, had spent decades doing penance for the conduct of the Japanese army towards its POWs; he had felt guilt; he had written a short book about his experiences, a book in which he specifically described a horrific instance of the torture of Lomax; he had built a religious shrine at one end of the bridge over the River Kwai; he had taken anti-militarist positions which outraged his countrymen.
Lomax (initially through his own wife) got in touch with Takashi, and they ultimately arranged to meet, which they did at one end of the bridge over the Kwai. They and their wives spent time together there, at other places on the railroad line, and then in Japan. The interpreter needed Lomax’s forgiveness, desperately I would say. Forgiveness was hard for Lomax to give, but he finally did give it, writing it out in a letter beforehand and reading the letter to Takashi in a hotel room.
There is a picture on the inside of the book jacket of Lomax and Takashi together, in Japan, I would judge, in a railroad station. There is the tall (maybe six foot three or so?) wavy-white-haired, white mustached, suited and tied Scotsman, Lomax, and the short, bald, informally jacketed, tieless Takashi. They are standing side by side, both looking directly at the camera, shaking hands with their right hands, with Takashi’s right arm extended across his body to reach Lomax’s right hand.
This brief description gives a sense of the overall essence of The Railway Man, but certainly does not do justice to the whole of the book or the wealth of details, often affecting ones, that fill it. It is a very moving book, one that causes you to weep inwardly at the horrors in its pages and sometimes at the beauty and emotion in them. It is, as I’ve said, a classic.
Yet, I do not bring it up here just because it is a classic. As readers may have figured out, I read lots of books, the more so because of MSL’s book TV show and its authors’ book talks at night. But few of the books are discussed here. The Railway Man is being brought up here, however.
When a person of my age or older reads The Railway Man, one inevitably is reminded all over again of why Americans of a certain period hated the Japanese so intensely and, one would say, the Germans too after discovery of the concentration camps. (Paul Fussell has written that the discovery of the camps caused American soldiers to begin to hate the Germans, to regard them all as beasts, and sometimes to take no prisoners but instead to kill the Germans without quarter and without mercy. The camps were, he says, the reason the Americans began to feel they were on a crusade. The Russians, of course, did not need the discovery of the camps to hate the Germans, in view of what the Germans had done in Russia.)
The Japanese and the Germans of World War II were savage and evil. There are men a bit older than me who fought the Japanese and even now, or at least until recently, would have nothing to do with them or their products. As well, the war in the Pacific was a race war, and the cruelty of the Japanese towards their enemies is one of the reasons this was so. (I say this knowing full well that America itself had been racist towards the Japanese for 60 some years by the time of Pearl Harbor.) It was the incredible savagery, cruelty, barbarism, and mass murder of the Japanese and the Germans that cause some people of a certain age to sometimes refer even now to the Japanese and Germans of WWII as the Nips and the Krauts. It was the Japanese cruelty in China, Korea and elsewhere that causes those countries to be understandably outraged when Japanese prime ministers visit -- worship at -- shrines to the Japanese dead of World War II, when Japanese militarists want to rearm, when Japanese schoolbooks deliberately omit mention of what Japan did, when Japan refuses to apologize even 60 years later for its horrid actions. Younger generations of Americans, thank goodness, are spared the kind of visceral, bred-in-the-bone-by-events hatred of the Japanese of World War II that still exists in some of their elders, at least on occasion, and, one gathers, that exists in elements of certain Asian populations.
But whether or not one despises the Japan and the Japanese of World War II, and the Germans and Germany of World War II, it is a marvelous thing, it is a world shaking fact, that the Japan and Germany, and the Japanese and Germans, of the last 45 years or so appear to have very little or nothing in common with the savages of the war period. They seem to have become instead, and largely because of the US one gathers, exemplary to the world. They are democracies. They are prosperous. They show no desire to make war. And all this in major part because of American tutelage and aid.
Therein lies one of history’s most profound ironies, an irony that is extraordinarily upsetting to decent Americans regardless of what states they live in and regardless of what is thought or (lyingly) said by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, their red state savages-allies in Congress, or their red state savages-supporters in the South and elsewhere. The irony is that, while Japan and Germany, with American tutelage, have become peaceful democracies, America has gone in the other direction. It has become the most warlike nation on earth, fighting war after war after war. Japan and Germany learned that down that road of war after war lies ruin, but America has been determining for 45 years now to go down that exact road, and is firmly set on it. Likewise, Japan and Germany used to be the torturers, as so powerfully evidenced in Lomax’s book, but now it is America that is the torturer. It was Japan and Germany that claimed that war, torture, mass killing and other evil were necessary for national safety, and now it is America that claims it will achieve national safety through war. Japan and Germany learned that taking on one country after another leads to other countries ultimately ganging up on them, notwithstanding that they too had allies. Now it is the United States (which likewise has at least some -- at least putative -- allies) that is taking on one country after another (Afghanistan, Iraq, perhaps Iran, perhaps Syria, and who knows what others); and now it is the United States that consequently is finding that other countries, learning from the very Munich analogy that George Bush loves to wrongly cite in his own favor, are beginning to gang up against it, as are international non-state terrorist organizations as well, with the national ganger-uppers so far being, most loudly, countries in the one billion person Muslim world, but with several non-Muslim countries likewise being none too happy with us. It is now America that has taken over the mantle of World War II Germany and Japan, as well as the mantle of the post WWII Soviet Union, which collapsed in part because of the bitter enmity of many countries that affected it in many ways, including straining its economy beyond what it could service, and because of its invasion of Afghanistan, the graveyard of great powers for centuries. It is now America that is warlike and that is using torture, like the Japanese of Lomax’s book, and that is justifying torture and is engaging in, and causing, mass killing -- with the result being three million dead by one hand or another in Viet Nam and, it is estimated, somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 or more in Iraq.
The irony is just horrid. We have become the World War II Japanese and Germans. We do what they did, and we use similar justifications, albeit we alter them to fit our own circumstances. Meanwhile, the Japanese and the Germans are now the opposite. Oh my.
The savages in our government and their red state allies like to say that their opponents are nothing but cutters and runners, are only 1960s liberals, are treasonous, do not honor the flag, are unpatriotic, and what not. Well, the truth is that the flag they want everyone to automatically worship, and the kind of patriotism that horrible human beings like Bush want everyone to automatically defer to, have become a cover for evil. If opposing that evil makes one a cutter and runner, treasonous, a “mere” 1960s liberal, then I say let’s have more such cutting and running, more such “treason,” more such 1960s liberalism. If accusations of treason and lack of patriotism are to be thrown around, in my view the traitors are those like Bush and his allies who ignore the ideals that give meaning to America, and instead are making this country into one that imitates the barbarism of our enemies of WW II (and of the Soviet Union before and during the Cold War). Those whom Bush and his allies slander seem to lack the wit or courage to say this, however.
You know, liberals like this writer are not pacifists. What liberals of today are, though, is far more likely to pick their spots, when it comes to fighting wars, than are the reactionary radicals who inhabit the top levels of government today -- are far more likely to be cautious today, to try other methods to the uttermost today before launching into warfare, to try to be wise and exercise good judgment today. Far from liberals being pacifists or virtually pacifists, as the right wing likes to imply, the people and the media of this country seem never to reflect that the toughest wars in this country’s history were run at the top civilian level by liberals. The Revolution was run by the Continental Congress, dominated by great liberals of their day. The Civil War was run by Lincoln, a great liberal for his day. The Philippines Insurrection was run by Theodore Roosevelt, a liberal. World Wars I and II were run by Wilson and FDR, both liberals. Korea was initially run by Truman, a liberal (and then by Eisenhower, a moderate, not a reactionary). Viet Nam was run for four years by Johnson, a liberal, before it was run by Nixon. Liberals almost all. Yet, the reactionary, militaristic “thugs in suits” (as I believe Howard Zinn calls them) who run our government today, and the ignorant, often politically spineless savages who are their allies in Congress, the red states and elsewhere, claim that liberals (read Democrats?) cannot run national security and won’t fight where necessary, while the liberals themselves (for sure read Democrats) lack the wit to point out that it was persons of liberal stripe, not reactionaries like George Bush and company, who ran most of this country’s toughest wars. (Those wars include, let it be said, some as misguided as is Bush II’s long war against Iraq, to wit, the Philippines Insurrection and Viet Nam, both of which, it is important to say, were, like Bush’s Iraq war after its first few weeks, insurgencies, not conventional wars. Bush learned nothing from these prior terrible experiences, thus demonstrating his brainlessness yet again.)
I conclude with this: It has seemed to me for some time now that the great problems of this country include a widely prevailing lack of imagination or empathy, so that one does not understand or care about what the other guy may be feeling (and that causes approval of torture as well as other major problems). The causative factors of our disasters, you see, are not confined to wide ranging dishonesty, wide incompetence, wide lack of knowledge of history and current events, and unhappy widespread stupidity. They also, as said, include wide lack of imagination. That lack of imagination is brought up short by Lomax’s book, which hits you in the face with the human meaning of torture, both when it occurs and in later years, and which causes one to reflect, when reading of the torture, that we now do the exact same things that were done to Lomax, and that in this and other ways we have become like the enemies we once abhorred.
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