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Eric Lomax's "The Railway Man" And Today's America

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Message Lawrence Velvel
September 6, 2006

Re: Eric Lomax's "The Railway Man" And Today's America.

From: 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.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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