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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lessons from "Unbroken"

I just finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by (Hillenbrand, 2010).  It details the life of Louie Zamperini, child hellion turned Olympic track athlete turned WW II soldier turned POW turned war hero turned social activist.  The book provided me with some powerful lessons on three fronts: historical, psychological, and spiritual. 
From a historical perspective I had previously read the memoirs of Douglas MacArthur (1964) and McCullough’s compelling biography of Harry Truman (1993).  Through those works (and through numerous history classes) I had already developed some understanding of the contexts, circumstances, and perceptions related to the U.S. conflict with Japan during World War II.  In particular, Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war, has always been a topic of great interest to me as I consider it the classic leader’s dilemma case study.  In those circumstances, leaders are faced with making tough choices from a very short menu of options, all of which are VERY ugly.  Unbroken provided for me yet a couple more lenses through which to view Truman’s decision: that of soldiers-on-the-ground in the battle theater and that of POWs suffering the vilest offenses imaginable at the hands of their Japanese captors.  These new perspectives provided in Unbroken only confirmed in my mind that Truman chose wisely in using the most lethal weapon available to him in hopes of ending the war expeditiously.
 On the psychological front, Unbroken provided an interesting study in paradox.  On the one hand the ability of some human minds to withstand extreme and prolonged duress speaks volumes to me, as it clearly underscores that cognitive evolution has equipped us with an amazing mind with which we can overcome great adversity.  However, only the most disciplined minds seem to harbor the seeds of resilience needed in such dire circumstances. Discipline is a daily practice, not a resource that can be called upon in ad hoc situations.  On the other hand, the book also paints a clear picture of the depths to which the human mind is capable of sinking, when submitted to circumstances void of clear moral direction.  On this end of the spectrum, the undisciplined mind is capable of every bit as much calamity as the disciplined mind is of resilience.   The most powerful passage in the book for me was the following, which speaks to the impact of dignity on the mind’s resilience:  “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.” (p. 183) 
Finally, on the spiritual front, the lessons of forgiveness have been renewed in my mind through reading Unbroken.  When individuals and nations, through the grace of God, can put aside vengeance and replace it with total forgiveness, despite depredations unimaginable, I am further convinced that more of our “beingness” is attributable to that spirit part of us, as opposed to our body or intellect.  And, I believe that that spiritual component in us springs from well beyond ourselves: it is rooted in the likeness of the God who created us. 
Unbroken was a powerful work, one that I enjoyed thoroughly. 
Thanks for the recommendation, Linda N.

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