An Important Book: “Tears in the Darkness”

I just finished reading a book so lovely in its lyrical prose, and so terrible in its content, that it is worth recommending to you. The authors seamlessly weave together 10 years of research, the story of a single solder who lived the events that are described, and the history of the Bataan Death March into a literary marvel. That single man is Ben Steele, now a 90-year-old retired art teacher, who was a young Montana cowboy before he enlisted in the armed forces in 1940. The book is Tears in the Darkness: the Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael and Elizabeth Norman.

A short history of the war in the Philippines: the United States was not yet in the World War that started in 1939, but was planning for it. The politics of the time did not permit an all-out preparation because of strong isolationist sentiment in this country. For many people, Europe and the Far East were very far away indeed and, even if they sympathized with the plight of the war’s victims, it did not seem to those US citizens that our country had any direct obligation or national interest in becoming involved. When war did come via the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, the USA was ill-prepared, and with the damage done to the Air Force in Hawaii, incapable of much effective action in the Pacific. Thus, the American troops stationed in the Philippines, as well as the native soldiers there to defend their homeland, were on their own when Japanese planes began the assault a few hours after the Pearl harbor bombing.

The Japanese infantry had been trained in a merciless and humiliating fashion. Their attitude toward the 76,000 U.S. and Philippine soldiers who surrendered in early 1942 was fueled by racism (which was present on both sides of the conflict), “trickle down” of the way they had been treated by their own superiors, and their belief that their opponents had dishonored themselves by giving up, something that the Japanese soldier saw as an outcome worse than death. Their treatment of the enemy was criminal (and later subject to war crimes trials). When coupled with a starvation diet and lack of adequate medical supplies or attention, the death rate of the surrendering army was staggering, never more than during the 66 mile “death march” demanded of the already depleted army after their surrender.

The authors’ focus on one man in particular gives all this pain a very human and sympathetic face. As Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” The individual stories of Steele and others makes this book much more than a dry history lesson. Ben Steele’s drawings provide another way to get to know him and a further witness to the tragedy of  these ordinary men caught up in something beyond imagination.

The narrative is remarkably even handed in its treatment of the soldiers on both sides. No excuses are made for inexcusable behavior, but one cannot help but acknowledge that the post-war “war crimes” trials were tilted heavily against the enemy. The person of General Douglas MacArthur does not fair well. He is portrayed as a self-serving and mean-spirited man, more concerned with polishing his legend than providing encouragement to his troops. And his military decision making, especially his failure to safeguard the planes under his command despite being aware for approximately 10 hours that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, is called into serious question. Similarly, his failure to take tons of  provisions, including food and medical supplies, that could have been available to his forces when they staged their strategic retreat south down the Peninsula of Bataan, despite the urging of members of his staff. One can only recall MacArthur’s famous farewell speech ending with the words, “old soldiers never die…they just fade away.” The irony of those words is apparent when one thinks of the soldiers in the Philippines under his command, many of whom died before becoming “old soldiers,” and all of whom suffered.

In the end, this treasure of a book is terribly moving in its cumulative impact. You will have read about hundreds of men by name, as well as so many others unnamed but whose lives were no less valuable. They once had all lived as we do when in peace time, in the quiet security and beauty and commonplace of everyday life, with all the usual frustrations, routines, requirements, laughter, joy, and unremarkable disappointments and losses. Nothing could have prepared them for what the Philippines would bring in 1942 until the war’s end in 1945. Their names are important. We do them and ourselves an honor by reading them, knowing what they endured and in many cases failed to survive in the name of the United States of America and a government that saw them as expendable.

By the time you reach the book’s end, you will, at least temporarily, find it hard to view the normal events of the day in quite the same way because you will know what horrible things happened and, but for the grace of God, timing, or circumstance, could have happened to you or someone you love. And you might just kneel down and kiss the earth in gratitude for your relative good luck.

After Life

File:Sc 2.jpg

The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.

A Few Good Books

You won’t be looking at this unless you are a reader. So here are a few brief recommendations of books that have made a lasting impression on me. Most are not new and I suspect that some are out of print, but are likely to be obtainable by a search on the Internet. In no particular order:

1. Frauen by Allison Owings. Owings comes as close as anyone to answering the question, “How did the Holocaust Happen.” An American journalist who studied in Germany, she returned there to interview mostly gentile women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. Owings summary does an extraordinary job of describing the psychology of the bystanding German population.

2.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Irving gives away the plot of his novel early on: Owen Meany will die an unusual death. But rather than destroying the tension of the book, this puts the reader in Owen’s shoes as a man who knows that he will come to an untimely end, but doesn’t know exactly how. As the book progresses and that end comes closer, the terror is almost unbearable.

3.  Agitato by Jerome Toobin. The story of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra in the one decade that it attempted to survive after his retirement. If you enjoy anecdotes about famous musicians, this book is for you. The tale Toobin tells is both funny and sad, since the orchestra did not last. Jerome Toobin, by the way, is the father of Jeffrey Toobin, the legal scholar and public intellectual.

4.  Regret: the Persistence of the Possible by Janet Landman. A book about the title emotion, viewed from literary, psychological, and other perspectives.

5.  What is the Good Life? by Luc Ferry. A very good attempt to answer the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life?

6.  The Long Walk by Slavomir Ramicz. The author tells the true story of his escape from a Siberian prison camp. He and his compatriots, with almost no equipment, food, or appropriate clothing, attempted to walk to freedom and Western Civilization, which took them as far as India. As you can imagine, not all of them made it. That anyone at all did is astonishing.

7.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This story of an unhappily married Russian woman touches on almost all that is important in life: love, friendship, obligation, children, religion, the value (or lack) of value to be found in work and education, death, and the meaning of life. None of that would matter much without the author’s gift of telling his story and allowing these issues to flow out of the human relationships and events he describes.

8.  The Boys of  Summer by Roger Kahn. Kahn’s classic tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team of the 1950s, the team that had Jackie Robinson as its central figure and leader.

9.  War Without Mercy by John Dower. Dower describes the racism that underpinned the Pacific theater of World War II. Unlike the war in Europe, each side viewed the other as less than human and treated the enemy with a brutality consistent with that view.

10.  The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. Although the book is now a few decades old, the writer’s message is still spot on. He looks at the empty pursuit of happiness in material things and acquisitions, driven by the increasingly disconnected nature of social relationships in this country, and the promise of the media that happiness lies, not in fulfilling human contact, but in the goods that come with “success.”

11.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A fantastic and touching creation about a man unstuck in time, thrown forward and back, and the woman who loves him. Its being made into a movie, I’m told.

12. Patrimony by Philip Roth. Roth’s account of the illness and death of his father.

13.  The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker . More than one person has told me that this is the finest nonfiction book they have ever read. It is a meditation on what it means to be mortal, and how the knowledge we all have of our inevitable demise influences how we live, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Becker’s book has lead to an entire area of psychological research called “Terror Management Theory.”

14.  For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller is a controversial Swiss psychiatrist who looks at the effect of harsh upbringing on the welfare of children. If you believe that children should be seen and not heard, this book might make you think twice.

15.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A story of self sacrifice and heroism set in the French Revolution. If you can read the last few pages without tears, you have a firmer grip on your emotions that I have on mine.

16.  The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter was a college professor when he began to travel around the country in the 1960s, tape recorder in tow, to obtain the first hand stories of the great baseball players of the first two decades of the 20th century, who were by then very old men. Probably as great an oral history as any of those written by Studs Terkel, and perhaps the greatest baseball book ever.

17.  American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Oppenheimer is the man who brought the Manhattan Project to fruition, that is, helped create the bomb we used to end World War II in 1945. But more than that, this book is a wonderful biography of a complex, peculiar, and brilliant man, who was brought low by those who wished to discredit his opposition to nuclear proliferation in the period after the war.

18.  The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. A story that is beyond belief, but turns out to be true. The central figure of the story, when he was a little boy, was adopted as a mascot by a Latvian SS troop after surviving the murder of his family. Why beyond belief? Because he was Jewish. The book reads like the most extraordinary mystery.

19.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The most famous anti-war novel ever written. The book is told from the standpoint of a young German infantryman during World War I.