Memories of War

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Last month I visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum in Chiran, Japan, a small town characterized by cherry-lined streets and what remains of a centuries-old Samurai village. The museum is a moving tribute to the 1,000 or so young men who were ordered to give their lives for god and country (the emperor was considered divine) by flying their planes directly into American targets in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Chiran was the departure point for most of those flights.

The museum contains photographs of all the men, along with the letters many of them wrote to their families on the eve of their death. These pilots were little more than boys, most of them aged 17–28, some of them photographed playing with puppies as they posed, smiling, in front of their planes. In their letters they urged their mothers to be proud, their sisters to be comforted, their girlfriends to move on without them, and their children to be brave. One man wrote, “I am sorry that Papa will not be able to play horsey with you any more.” Another’s girlfriend leapt from a bridge to her death after she read his letter, and yet another’s wife drowned herself and her children before his flight so he could die without regret. Several of these young pilots were Koreans conscripted into the service against their will. None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death. I felt nothing but sadness for these young boys.

Two weeks later I was in Oahu, where over 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning of December 7, 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, wounding another thousand, and crippling the American fleet. The attack brought America into war in the Pacific. One cannot visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial without feeling profound sadness for the loss of life that day and in the four years that were to come. Yet, having just visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum, I could not hate the men who flew the bombers into Pearl Harbor. The words of Edwin Starr resonated in my mind: “War: What Is It Good For?”

Perhaps it is good for peace. But at what price? I thought of this as I watched The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of a British soldier, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine) who was captured by the Japanese during World War II, forced to help build the railway through Thailand that was immortalized by the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and tortured by his captors when he built a radio receiver inside their prison. The title of the film has dual meanings; not only does Lomax help build the railroad through Thailand, but from his youth he has had an obsession for trains and has always memorized details about train schedules, train depots, and the towns that surround train stations. In context, the title also suggests a metaphor for the bridges that are eventually built, through arduous effort, between Lomax and others, including his wife Patti.

None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death.

As the film opens, Lomax (Firth) is a middle-aged man who meets a pretty nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on a train. He immediately falls in love with her. (The film implies that this is a first marriage for the shy and socially inept Lomax, but the real Eric Lomax was already married at the time he met Patti. He married Agnes just three weeks after returning from the war, and then divorced her just a few months after meeting Patti on the train. This, and the rest of the story, suggests to me that he returned from the war safe, but not sound.) Eric notes morosely, “Wherever there are men, there’s been war,” and Patti replies with a gentle smile, “And wherever there’s been a war, there’s been a nurse like me to put them back together.”

This introduces the key to their relationship. The war has officially ended 35 years earlier, but it still rages in Lomax’s mind. He will need the kind and patient wisdom of a nurse to help put him back together again. His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully portrayed when ordinary events trigger painful memories that transport him immediately to his jungle experiences as a POW. For example, the sound of the shower triggers terrifying memories of the water torture he endured at the hands of his brutal captors. The unexpected intrusion of these scenes demonstrates the unending aftermath of war and the difficulty of controlling its horrifying memories.

Wise casting adds to the pathos of this fine film. Much of what I know about World War II has been shaped by the films I’ve seen, and most of those were populated by actors well into their 30s and 40s. But in this film Young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by slender boys in their early 20s who can’t even grow a stubble of beard after four days aboard a prison train. They are closer to the tender ages of the soldiers they are portraying, and this increases the pathos of the story and our admiration for the strength and resolve of these boys who are thrust into manhood, much like the kamikaze pilots, before they even know what war is.

The Railway Man is a character-driven film that demonstrates the choices we have, even when it seems we have no choices at all. Jesus demonstrated the power of choice when he said, “If a man requires of you his coat, give him your cloak also” and, “If a man smites you, turn the other cheek.” He wasn’t telling his followers to give up and give in, but to take charge and move on, by invoking the right to choose one’s attitude when it seems that the freedom to choose one’s actions is gone. This film demonstrates that same transformative power of choice.

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