This biographical narrative is really two stores inside one cover binding. On the one hand, it is a testament to human beings’ strength of Will and ability to survive against the depths of the most acute cruelty. When that Will triumphs, our respect for the human spirit leaps forward, and the human species advances to yet another level. But we are also reminded that, after thousands of years of human development, growth, knowledge and rationality, human beings can also operate as one of the lowliest species on earth. Able to attack and kill other beings simply for the sake of doing it, rather than out of genuine need for survival.
World War II seems almost as ancient history to many of us, but it occurred only 70 years ago. One lifetime. My lifetime. To younger Americans, it is simply one chapter in their school history book, important to memorize but of little relevance to today’s life. When most Americans think of WWII, thoughts are generally of Nazi Germany and the European war, more predominately perpetuated in the films and literature of post-war America. The Pacific war is typically skipped over. But the unfathomable crimes against POWs and civilian populations across Asia were as horrific in their own way as the carnage perpetrated in Europe. And in both theaters of war, racial arrogance was the parent of that comprehensive carnage.
Nazi Germany was the supposed “superman” of human development, the Aryan (White) perfection of the human race. From that thinking, the elimination of the lesser elements of the human race – by war and by mass executions in the Holocaust – was an easy step. Similarly, the arrogance of the Japanese military ruling class and their self-view of racial perfection over all other Asians – notably the Chinese and Koreans – allowed them to treat those lesser beings as mere props supporting their dominance. Conscience and humanity towards others disappeared from the social fabric. But there was one marked difference between Germany’s and Japan’s arrogance: Japan extended its captured POWs and enslaved labor no mutuality of wartime respect. 1% of American POWs in German captivity died; 37% of American POWs in Japanese captivity died. Louis Zamperini managed to survive that grim statistic, even if only in body and not in mind.
So what does a horror of cruelty “so long ago” have to do with our lives today? Simple. Not much has changed since then. Yes, war in Europe, a constant state for 1000 years, has been virtually eradicated. No small accomplishment. Yet the violence of war continues elsewhere. But beyond war itself is the continuing inhumanity of cruelty, the wanton killing, the killing for intimidation to create power. It is the killing from generations of handed-down hatred whose original source has long been rendered irrelevant. So we have the attempted “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia; the carpet-bombings and “Agent Orange” in Viet Nam; the various ethnic slaughters across Africa; the perpetual state of recurring killing between Palestinians and Israelis; the fratricidal conflicts within Islam in post-Saddam Iraq; the indiscriminate killings in the Syrian revolution; and now the wholesale slaughter of anyone in its conquering path by ISIS in the old Middle East Crescent. These are deaths not from “normal” war casualties, but from an abject indifference to the value of human life. A state of mind less than those supposedly “inferior” animal minds that live in the jungles of the wild.
Why human beings are in such a rush to not just kill each other, but to do so in as painful and indiscriminate way possible, is near impossible to understand. Are we still, after all of these centuries, still that afraid of each other? Afraid of different opinions, religious beliefs, cultural practices, ancestral history, personal lifestyles, and genders? Still trying to dominate others to mitigate our fear of them rather than coexisting with them? Still killing each other over long-dead disagreements and birthrights originally fought hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago? Does each party to this inhumanity still think it is the true victim, the aggrieved party, who therefore must now be committed to ever-lasting revenge? Who really struck the first blow?
By October, 1949, Louis Zamperini had reached the depths of descent from national war hero and celebrity to alcoholic, his marriage in shambles with divorce papers in process. Somehow, his wife nevertheless convinced him to go hear some unknown preacher then in town conducting open-air services under a big tent. Louis went, but bolted out panicked before the end of the service. She convinced him to return again another night, and he started to race out once again before the end. But just before reaching the exit, a quiet voice inside of him echoed his words said during those many desperate days in his life raft, floating day-after-day seemingly to nowhere on the ocean currents, when he prayed out loud: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” In that instant of remembrance, Louie recognized that part one was done – he had been saved. Now it was payback time, because his life had become anything but “serving.” Instead of leaving, he turned around and walked to the front of the tent, the tent where Billy Graham’s now-famous Los Angeles religious crusade first created national headlines and made Graham a lifetime religious celebrity. In that instant, Louis Zamperini forgave his tormentors, turned loose his hatred, ended his nightmares of POW torture, gave up his thirst for revenge, and moved into the lifetime of positive service he had promised to his faith.
In the midst of continual inhumanity, we can still find our humanity. Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely time. It is only in this facing, and acknowledging, of our own inhumanity that we can thereby then find our own humanity, and let the past be past. At the personal level; at the collective, national level. One person at a time, one step at a time, one lifetime at a time. And so civilization glacially crawls forward, moving inches in the continuous days after days. In times such as these, discouragement at the human condition can be understandable. The Louis Zamperinis remind us why we hold on to hope. And why we continue to keep stubbornly inching our way forward. One painful, beautiful step at a time.
© 2014 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com