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Themes and Colors
Survival and Resilience  Theme Icon
Dignity Theme Icon
Redemption and Forgiveness  Theme Icon
War and Identity  Theme Icon
Belief and Faith Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Unbroken, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
War and Identity  Theme Icon

War is hell. But Unbroken shows that in the darkest moments of that hell, people discover their true natures. Louie, for example, made it through the war with greater self-knowledge. Stranded on the raft, Louie comes to know the full strength of his resolve and resourcefulness, surviving for over forty days. Likewise, in the prison camps, Louie discovers just how unbreakable his sense of self is. Though the Japanese prison guards try to erase his identity by making him feel less than human, Louie never loses his goodhearted and optimistic nature.

But the war also reveals the depths of human cruelty. Hillenbrand compares Watanabe’s cruelty to that of the other Japanese guards in order to show the different ways war brings out the darkest aspects of humanity. Hillenbrand claims that many Japanese prison guards were unable to cope with the horrific barbarity of dehumanizing the POWs. So, in response, these Japanese guards refused to see the POWs as human so that they could carry out the cruelties that their superiors demanded of them. If they saw the POWs as beasts rather than men, then it would easier for them to beat and starve them. In this way, the war turned good men into monsters. In contrast to these solders, Hillenbrand speculates that the war did not make Watanabe evil. Instead, she argues that he always had sadistic impulses, but that the war gave him the power to enact his violent fantasies on the helpless POWs. His case shows how war gives evil men the freedom to express the full extent of their wickedness.

War also has the potential of destroying the core traits of one’s character. The psychological toll of the war changes Louie in tragic ways. When Louie arrives home from the war, he was no longer the lighthearted, resilient, and optimistic Olympic runner but instead a withdrawn, abusive, and unstable war veteran. Yet Louie’s religious salvation—which comes as the result of a kind of last gasp effort by his wife—gave him the feeling of being reborn as a “new creation.” Religion helped Louie put the horrors of war behind him by providing him with a kind of blank slate on which to remake his identity anew.

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War and Identity Quotes in Unbroken

Below you will find the important quotes in Unbroken related to the theme of War and Identity .
Chapter 1 Quotes

He could feel the rumble of the craft’s engines tilling the air but couldn’t make out the silver skin, the sweeping ribs, the finned tail. He could see only the blackness of the space it inhabited. It was not a great presence but a great absence, a geometric ocean of darkness that seemed to swallow heaven itself.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Related Symbols: The Graf Zeppelin
Page Number: 4-5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louis looks up at the Graf Zeppelin, a German airship that flew around the world in the years leading up to World War II. The zeppelin is presented as a symbol of foreboding and even evil: although it's on a peaceful mission, it's going to visit two countries--Germany, as led by Hitler, and Japan--that will soon fight against the United States in World War II. Louis is only a young kid, looking up at the zeppelin as it flies over California. And yet he gets a sense of foreboding as he watches it; it's as if he can feel the specter of World War Two approaching. (The passage is also a good example of how the author uses a highly fictional, imaginative approach to nonfiction: we can't know for sure what Louis was thinking when he was a kid, after all.)


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Chapter 6 Quotes

From this day forward, until victory or defeat, transfer, discharge, capture, or death took them from it, the vast Pacific would be beneath and around them. Its bottom was already littered with downed warplanes and the ghosts of lost airmen. Every day of this long and ferocious war, more would join them.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Louie and his new friend, Phil, prepare for a career in the military. They're being sent to Japan, where some of the most brutal fighting of World War Two took place. Hillebrand depicts their journey across the Pacific Ocean as a dangerous trek, in which they're surrounded by death in one form or another ("the ghosts of lost airmen"). As the war goes on, we're told, more and more soldiers will be killed. The passage is important because it conveys the extent of the danger Louie is about to face. He's dealt with adversity before, but it's not until now that he'll truly risk his life.

Chapter 8 Quotes

In World War II, 35,933 AAF planes were lost in combat and accidents. The surprise of the attrition rate is that only a fraction of the ill-fated planes were lost in combat. In 1943 in the Pacific Ocean Areas theater in which Phil’s crew served, for every plane lost in combat, some six planes were lost in accidents. Over time, combat took a greater toll, but combat losses never overtook noncombat losses.

Related Characters: Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn a surprising fact: during World War Two, the vast majority of airplanes in the Pacific were lost because of accidents--in other words, the planes went down because they malfunctioned, the pilot erred, the weather was bad, or other reasons--not because a Japanese enemy shot them down. Hillebrand has no illusions about the virtues of war: although Louie enters the war in part because he thinks of combat as an inherently heroic, admirable profession, the reality is that war is often undignified and full of meaningless death. The passage also foreshadows some of the accidents that will get Louie in trouble later in the book: he's as much a victim of his own faulty machinery as he is of the Japanese army.

Chapter 26 Quotes

Finally, Louie was introduced to a group of men, Australians and Americans. These men, the producers said, were helping them make broadcasts. As Louie held out his hand, the propaganda prisoners dropped their eyes to the floor. Their faces said it all; if Louie agreed to make this broadcast, he would be forced into a life as his enemy’s propagandist.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie, still in captivity, is sent to be a propagandist for the Japanese nation. Louie is a well-known figure (at least relative to the other POWS), and therefore his presence on the propaganda team would be of great use to Japan. If Louie were to read pro-Japanese statements, the Japanese think, then he could influence American soldiers to turn against their commanders, or at least deal a general blow to American morale.

In short, Louie is being offered an easy way out: he can work with the Japanese and get better conditions during his time in a Japanese prison, or he can refuse and go back to being tortured. The passage, then, poses a moral challenge to Louie—he’d be sacrificing his psychological dignity by working with the Japanese, yet gaining a better physical life.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Now he was condemned to crawl through the filth of a pig’s sty, picking up feces with his bare hands and cramming handfuls of the animal’s feed into his mouth to save himself from starving to death. Of all of the violent and vile abuses that the Bird had inflicted upon Louie, none had horrified and demoralized him as did this. If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Related Symbols: The Bird
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie is forced to endure an especially awful punishment at the hands of the sadistic "Bird": he’s forced to crawl on the floor of a pig sty, picking up pig feces with his bare hands. Furthermore, Louie has to eat the feces just to survive. This torture is not only disgusting and horrific, it's also entirely dehumanizing--Louie is made to act like an animal, or something even lower than an animal. The Bird is trying to break Louie’s spirit, and this kind of torture tries to get him to think of himself as a mere beast.

The passage shows Louie coming close to giving up entirely. And yet even here, at the nadir of his time in captivity, Louie maintains his sanity and his confidence (barely). The one Japanese soldier who treated him with kindness and support has inspired him to be strong. Thus, even while Louie is thinking about being “shattered,” he continues to maintain some distance from his own punishment—it’s as if he’s just closing his eyes and waiting for it to be over.

Chapter 34 Quotes

A flask became his constant companion, making furtive appearances in parking lots and corridors outside speaking halls. When the harsh push of memory ran through Louie, reaching for his flask became as easy as slapping a swatter on a fly.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 347
Explanation and Analysis:

After Louie returns from the war, he becomes an alcoholic. He finds it impossible to cope with the traumatic memories of his time on the lifeboat and in the POW camp—it’s easier to blur things over with the help of liquor. Louie’s descent into alcoholism is especially hard to watch because he’s always been an incredibly self-controlled person—his self-control helped him survive the lifeboat and the POW camp, after all. And yet in the end, Louie’s trauma becomes too much for him (or any other man, for that matter) to bear: he can’t face the memories of being starved, beaten, and humiliated, and so he tries to escape them altogether.

Chapter 37 Quotes

No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home. In prison camp, he’d been beaten into dehumanized obedience to a world order in which the Bird was absolute sovereign, and it was under this world order that he still lived. The Bird had taken his dignity and left him feeling humiliated, ashamed, and powerless, and Louie believed that only the Bird could restore him, by suffering and dying in the grip of his hands. A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Related Symbols: The Bird
Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hillenbrand sums up Louie’s state of being after World War Two and before his religious conversion. He’s always been optimistic, and yet he’s now singularly fixated on the past rather than the future. Furthermore, Louie feels the need to struggle for his humanity and assert himself through violence. He spent so long being treated like an animal that he internalized some of the feelings of inferiority that the Bird was trying to make him feel. Louie rationally knows that he’s a human being, but he can’t help but hate himself as a result of the humiliating exercises he was forced to endure in Japan.

What Hillenbrand is describing, of course, is post-traumatic stress disorder, though the term hadn’t yet been popularized at the time. Louie doesn’t know that he’s suffering from a serious psychological affliction—as far as he’s concerned, his problem is his and his alone. Thus, instead of seeking help from doctors or counselors, Louie tries to solve his problems with violence—i.e., by killing the Bird.

Chapter 39 Quotes

In Sugamo Prison, as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Explanation and Analysis:

Louie was unbroken during the war because he faced the terrible traumas of the war, of the Japanese camps, and of the Bird with a refusal to give in or give up. He faced all these obstacles as enemies to be beaten, and he beat them. And yet after the war he found that the skills that allowed him to beat those obstacles -- rage, refusal to give in -- were essentially eating him alive. He survived the war; it did not break him physically. But it broke him emotionally.

As this quote shows, though, through religion Louie finds a way to mend himself, to un-break himself. Religion gives him a way to escape the mindset of war -- victory or death, defeat or be defeated -- and find instead compassion and forgiveness. Here he finds compassion, even, for the most hateful, vengeful enemy he faced: the Bird. And it is only when he feels that compassion for the Bird, when his faith allows him to be  able to recognize a kind of fundamental dignity in the Bird despite all that the bird did, that Louie is able to feel that dignity in himself as well and to leave the war behind, that he is able to truly be unbroken.