Saturday, June 25, 2011

"To End all Wars" -- a true story about a journey through Hell and back

I found this book by accident. While doing research for my novel about a Tokyo artist who was getting married in Princeton in the summer of 1961 at Princeton University’s Chapel, I found that Ernest Gordon was Dean and that he had written a book about his experience as a POW of the Japanese in Thailand. In many ways his experience paralleled the artist’s, as he had survived the Tokyo firebombings of 1945. Another connection is that both men advocate forgiveness and compassion towards one’s enemies. So I chose Reverend Gordon to perform the wedding for Seiji and his fiancĂ©e, whose father was a Princeton University professor. And I bought and read his book. It is very worthwhile read.

If you’ve been in combat, suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or know someone who does, Ernest Gordon’s “To End All Wars” is a book I heartily recommend. Though it makes for some searing reading, it is one of the most uplifting books on the subject that I have read.

“Selfishness, hatred, jealousy and greed [are] all anti-life”, he writes and “Love, self-sacrifice, mercy and creative faith … [are] the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense” (page viii).

Ernest Gordon was a Captain in the 93rd Highlanders when he and some companions were captured at sea and taken to the infamous River Kwai, where thousands of men died building a railroad for the Japanese. The inhumanity of the experience is painful to read, and much, much worse to have lived through. Many of the men he knew had their humanity stripped from them and began treating one another in as beastly a fashion as they were treated. Conditions were appalling: starvation, diseases like beriberi, diphtheria, cholera, malaria, amoebic dysentery, malnutrition and a host of other ailments were rampant. As the prisoners lost hope, they lost their humanity.

And then something happened: the men began, one by one, to wake up and help each other. Almost at death’s door, two men – Dusty Miller and Dinty Moore – volunteered to nurse Gordon back to health. Serving others began to spread, the men began getting their self-respect back, and the mood (but not the conditions) began to radically change. In one especially ugly scene, a Japanese guard berates a group of prisoners for losing a shovel. When no one confesses, he threatens to shoot them all. One young soldier steps forward and says “I did it.” The guard flew into a rage and beat the soldier to death, “stopping only when he was exhausted.” “The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guard-house no shovel was missing... “As this story was told, admiration for the [soldier] transcended hatred for the Japanese guard” (page 102). The prisoners won the day because they kept their self-respect and their dignity.

It is beyond high time that we put the foolishness and horror of war behind us and stop honoring it as we do. There are no clear winners in a war because the fallout is so damaging. Love, compassion, respect and treating one another as we would like to be treated is far more effective. “In the case of the Japanese, the effect on the perpetrators was to render them callous to man’s individual inhumanity to man. in the case of the West, the effect on the perpetrators was also that of initiating an ignoble callousness to human suffering” (page 49). I couldn’t agree more.

I rate this book an unqualified *****read.

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