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.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”