UNBROKEN: A WORLD WAR II STORY OF SURVIVAL, RESILIENCE, AND REDEMPTION

January 21, 2012 — 4 Comments

I recently finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand has turned an amazing story into a profound book. Hillenbrand also penned Seabiscuit, which was turned into a film, and I can’t imagine it will be long before Unbroken finds it’s way onto the big screen.

I wanted to share with you a few thoughts I had as I read Unbroken. If you’ve read the book, I hope that it will resonate with you (I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book in the comments at the end). If you have not yet read Unbroken, I hope that this will encourage you to add it to your “need to read” list. Or, perhaps this can serve as a discussion guide for your book club or reading group.

Spoiler Alert: I am going to provide a thematic overview of the book, so you will get a sense of the significant turns in the story by reading this post.

1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.

Louis “Louie” Zamperini was an angry young man headed for trouble. Smoking at 5, drinking by 8, stealing things just to get away with it. In every way, he was heading nowhere good. But the beautiful thing about life is that course-corrections are possible.

We too easily overlook or even discard people who seem like they are just too much trouble. But some things that have been used for bad purposes may also be used for good.

“In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.” (pg 7, italics mine).

2. Everyone needs a mission.

Louie’s course correction was a quick one, primarily because he was fast…really fast. Urged, encouraged and trained by his older brother, Zamperini discovered that he could outrun almost everyone on a track. No longer wasted his days getting in trouble, he began to experience the joy of giving his life to something with a sense of urgency.

We all need the internal confidence that our lives matter and that we have a mission to which we should give ourselves.

At 16, he ran a two mile race against college competition in UCLA’s Southern California Cross Country meet, and he won by more than a quarter of a mile. Hillenbrand rightly notes that what was more important even than the win was “the realization of what he was” (pg 18).

This reminds me of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

3. People are capable of greatness.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

What Louie accomplished in a very short a time as an athlete is remarkable. At the age of only nineteen, after only four attempts at this distance, Zamperini ran the 5000 meters in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. These games were made famous by the great Jesse Owens and the horrible Hitler. In 1938, still young by miler standards, he ran the fifth fastest mile ever. People began to speculate that he would be the first man to break the 4:00 mile mark and would be a lock for the Gold Medal in 1940.

Louie’s accomplishments inspired his family, his town, his state and his nation. Human beings, as God’s greatest creatures, can run or sing or sculpt or write or invent in ways that infuse our daily struggles with awe.

4. People are capable of monstrosity.

I remember asking my grandmother if she wanted to see Saving Private Ryan. Her answer: “Why would anyone want to experience that again?” Her brother had served in France during WWII. After reading Unbroken, I have a better understanding why she felt that way.

These numbers stood out to me in the book: 594. 0. 220. First, 594 was the number of bullet holes through Zamperini’s plane, Superman, on a single mission. Zero (0) was the number of survivors Louie anticipated when his plane, the Green Hornet, went down. 220 is the number of punches that Louie endured at the hands of his fellow POWs, who were lined up and ordered to strike each officer once as hard as they could.

Fact is that no number could measure the monstrosity that is carried out in war. Unbroken is a harsh and heart-rending look at the faces of evil unrestrained. [I intentionally say faces of evil rather face of evil, because I am not talking in abstract; I am talking about individual men and women who commit horrific evil against others.]

Mike Cosper writes, “Jesus taught us to pray ‘on earth as in heaven,’ inviting us to look at the world through the hope-filled promise of reconciliation…There is nothing so liberating as the news that we have a better King and an eternal hope…every tyrant’s days are numbered. A King was born in Bethlehem who will one day bring justice and peace” (italics mine). *

5. Relationships are essential.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

Throughout the story, people are at the center of it all. There is the mom who prayed constantly and waited hopefully for Louie’s return. There are the band of brothers that manned the bomber along with Louie. Pilot Phil who survived the plane crash and lived on a life-raft fending off sharks and starvation and insanity for weeks. The fellow POWs who suffered unimaginable cruelty together. The Japanese guard who introduced himself as a Christian and did what he could to protect Louie and others. Photos became treasures because they represented a distant connection to friends, family or a girl back home. Even diaries were kept in secret as a relational link to one’s true self.

“We were created for community” is more than a tagline. Relationships are essential to our survival. Our hearts naturally give themselves to others, and when we cease to connect with other people, we become less than human. Jesus described hell as a place of eternal torment and a significant part of that suffering is to be left alone, forever. Heaven is something we enjoy together with God and with others. **

6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.

During the ghastly ocean journey on the life-raft, Phil and Louie experienced a moment they would always remember. Hillenbrand wrote:

It was an experience of transendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like Pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fist broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then, they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death (Pg 160).

This is no accidental world. Louie would conclude: “Such beauty…was too perfect to have come by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was…a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil” (Pg 160).

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis says that moments like these give us a taste of the eternal, but the transcendence is not in the ocean or the wind or the beauty or things like these. He writes, “It was not in them, it only came through them.”

Lewis continues: “It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.” *** These experiences point us to something beyond themselves.

It would be years before Louie Zamperini would connect the dots between this experience on the open ocean and the Christian faith, but he would finally realize that God in his grace had both implanted in him a desire for transcendence and granted him a taste of transcendence.

7. Dignity is linked to hope.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

In one of the more profound sections of the book, Hillenbrand remarks, “…the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect, and a sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain.”

When reading of the torture and humiliation, I cannot grasp the depth of loss they endured. In this tragedy, I know of no where else to turn but the suffering of Jesus, who endured the same at the hands of people he had created. Though I have only experienced a bird bath of suffering next to oceans of suffering endured by these POWs, knowing that Jesus is one who understands, cares, and enters into our suffering brings me comfort. I’m told, from others who have suffered much, that the realities of Jesus’ struggles comforts them too.

8. Defiance is a virtue.

A chapter titled Farting to Hirohito provides some comic relief. In the POW camps, the men invented all manner of ways to defy their captors. One of my favorite lines reads, “A fragrant favorite involved saving up intestinal gas, explosively voluminous thanks to chronic dysentery, prior to [roll call]. When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.”

From timely expulsions to hidden escape plans to under-their-breath insults, these men managed to oppose evil by whatever means they could. We should all join the fight against injustice, and most of us have much greater opportunity than they did.

A wise friend once told me, “When my kids are teenagers, I just want them to be angry about the right stuff.” I agree. When fighting against evil, tyranny and injustice, rebellion is right. In our world, compliance is too often considered the highest value, but in many instances defiance is a much greater virtue.

9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

When Zamperini returns home, he struggles with reentry to a non-war world. Still fighting the horrors of his experience, he, understandably, drifts into a life of recurring nightmares, constant drinking, and vengeful desires. He descended into himself and seemed unable to find a way out.

But God specializes in hopeless situations.

Through an invitation of a neighbor and the coercion of his wife, Louie attends a Billy Graham crusade. At first, he is angry and resists Graham’s invitation. But at his wife’s prodding, he agrees to attend one more preaching session. Graham had extended his trip and was preaching several hours a day, seven days a week. In Billy Graham, Louie may have met a man who could match his stubbornness (being stubborn about the right things is a good thing).

At last, Louie surrendered and finally found freedom. He had been physically free from his captors for a long time, but now his soul was also free. He was free to sleep, to forgive, to live, to love.

God uses significant moments of crisis to change our lives, and Louie’s story is no different. But you’ll have to read the book to know more about his amazing journey.

9 Thoughts from Unbroken:
1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.
2. Everyone needs a mission.
3. People are capable of greatness.
4. People are capable of monstrosity.
5. Relationships are essential.
6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.
7. Dignity is linked to hope.
8. Defiance is a virtue.
9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

So, which of the above most resonates with you? Do any of these speak to your current life situation? And who is going to play the part of Louie in the movie?

-jdl

* Mike Cosper, All Oppression Will Cease, Even in North Korea, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/12/23/all-oppression-will-cease-even-in-north-korea/.

** For more in this line of thinking, see C. S. Lewis’ fantastic fantasy novel, The Great Divorce.

*** C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Quotes taken from pages 30, 40, 42 in the Harper Collins Edition 2001.

4 responses to UNBROKEN: A WORLD WAR II STORY OF SURVIVAL, RESILIENCE, AND REDEMPTION

  1. 

    This was my absolute favorite book last year. I don’t know what bubble I was living in, but I was horrified to hear of what prisoners of war had to endure and for how long. What actually resonated with me was Louie’s ability to forgive. That has stayed with me the longest. Also, I’m sorry to say, I would have discounted Louie for what a little trouble-maker he was, but it’s obvious that the Lord has a plan for everyone… another lesson for me.

    There is also an older book about his life (Devil at My Heels) that apparently they were going to make a movie from and Tony Curtis was going to play him, but I don’t think they ever did. I don’t know who I’d cast to play him.

    • 

      Beth, it was probably my favorite read as well. It was amazing to see how awful people can be in war time (and other times), and how the grace of God freed Louie to extend grace to others.

      Interesting to hear that there was another book and an earlier movie idea. Didn’t know about that.

      Thanks!

  2. 

    I really enjoyed reading this, Jeff. Both of my book clubs read Unbroken this past year and it made for great discussions. I’ll be passing your thoughts along to them. #6 and #9 resonate with me the most and I’d love to see Edward Norton cast as Louie, he’d be perfect.

    • 

      Thanks, Steph. I’m always amazed at how God works in people’s lives, so it was fun to see how #6 & 9 played out in Louie’s life. Edward Norton is a good call for the role. He had crossed my mind too.

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