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arrives home from the war, he was no longer the lighthearted, resilient, and optimistic Olympic runner but instead a withdrawn, abusive, and unstable war veteran.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.
War and Identity ThemeTracker
War and Identity Quotes in Unbroken
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.