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Written by Claire Cornwall
Man's Will To Survive
Without a doubt, Louie Zamperini has a will to survive that is stronger than that of the average person, enabling him to survive not one but several seemingly unsurvivable situations. In an interview many years after the War, Zamperini said that had he known what his life as a prisoner of war would be like, he would have killed himself before he was captured. This illustrates that the key to survival is hope. Survival as a theme runs throughout the book. After the Green Hornet crashes, Louie and Phil have a strong will to survive that not only carries them both forwards but carries forward the third surviving airman, Mac, as well. Mac's own will to survive is not as strong and he is wholly reliant on the mental stability and fortitude of his crewmates. Louie's will to survive seems to rest on the character traits of stubbornnes and a refusal to be tamed or broken down that are evident from the first tales of his youth. He will not let the ocean break him, and in his survival breaks the record for the longest time lost at sea by any survivor in a war. He does not look at the fact he might die, but looks at the day-to-day necessities and assumes that if he does these, he will live. His spirit of survival pushes him forwards to use the things that actually threaten his survival as tools to help him survive. For example, the sharks that are trying to attack the boat bring with them smaller sharks that Louie manages to catch and provide food for the drifting survivors.
When he is captured and tortured by the Japanese guards, Louie's spirit of survival will not let him break. He refuses to allow the worst guards to beat him. Despite the fact that he is brutally beaten, degraded and dehumanized by The Bird, Japanes Guard Watanabe, his spirit remains unbroken. To accomplish this, he again draws on the basic tenets of his character, in rule-breaking and secret defiance. He keeps a diary, which is a punishable offence, writing in it in secret and hiding it under the floor. He communicates with fellow prisoners using morse code and hand signals as well as an elaborate verbal code that they have created in order to keep their dignity. Throughout the book, it is made clear that dignity is the most important thing that enables the men to survive. ALthough their bodies are broken, their spirits are not, because they refuse to allow their dignity to be taken away.
The book's theme of survival illustrates that the will to survive is a characteristic that is inherent in someone from birth, and it is only in life-threatening situations that it is tested. It is possible for a person to survive what was done to the men in prisoner of war camps as long as they still maintain dignity and hope.
Futility of War
The futility of war is a theme throughout the book as it is plain that the brutality done to the men in the prisoner of war camp has absolutely nothing to do with the Japanese war effort and everything to do with the type of man selected by the Japanese to guard their prisoners. After the war the guards who brutalized and tortured their prisoners are arrested, tried and sentenced for war crimes, with punishments varying from long sentences to death. However, in the few years following the end of the war, the Allies become concerned at the strengthening and rising power of China and the threat it might pose, and so in order to create a political alliance with Japan, who can be an important ally in combating a rise in Communist power in the region, the sentences are commuted and the guards released from jail. The guards who have been put to death already are honored by the Japanese as war heroes. This illustrates the futility of the war that Louie and his fellow soldiers fought, as the country that they fought to destroy is now seen to be a friend.
After Louie listens to the young evangelist Billy Grahame, he gives his life over to God as he had promised whilst drifting on the raft after the Green Hornet had crashed. Part of this change in his life involved forgiveness; he forgave himself for the man he allowed himself to become after returning home from the War; his wife, Cynthia, called off their divorce and forgave him for the way in which he had acted in the throes of his post traumatic stress, and amazingly Louie forgave the men who had brutalized him at the prisoner of war camps, returning to Japan to visit them in the jail they had been sentenced to serve their time at. Although the men could not understand his forgiveness of him, and were extremely shocked to see a soldier whom they had tortured striding towards them with a smile on his face and his hand held out in a gesture of reconciliation, Louie's view was the forgiving his captors was more for his own benefit than for theirs. To continue to hate them and wish them dead was to continue to allow them to govern his life on a daily basis. Once he decided to forgive them, his nightmares and visions about Watanabe and his torture stopped completely. In this way, forgiveness helped Louie to leave the camps behind him in a way that holding onto his hatred never did. This theme of forgiveness is extremely important in the book as it separates the strength of a man like Louie from the cowardice of his Japanese captors.
Cowardice is introduced as a theme once Louie is captured by the Japanese and sent to the first of the camps he is confined to. Each camp is worse than the one before and each camp is governed by a team of the "dregs" of the Japanese military; the most psychopathic bullies and the most uneducated soldiers are made guards at the camps. Louie's strength of character threatens and scares his captors, but none so much as the man known to the prisoners as The Bird, Commander Watanabe whose character even frightens his fellow officers and whose superiors recognize that his mental imbalance makes him the perfect tool for them to allow torture of prisoners without having to do it themselves. The superior officers are cowardly because they allow him to torture on their behalf, and also because they are afraid of him themselves and do not want to confront him about his treatment of the prisoners. Watanabe is a coward from the time he meets Louie to long after the War is over, beating him every day, attempting to dehumanize him and doing everything he can to break the spirit of the most famous prisoner that he has. After the War, Louie wants to meet Watanabe, but his captor is too cowardly to meet him and face the man he beat in the face with a belt buckle. The cowardice of the prison guards is an ongoing theme throughout the book and contrasts starkly with the bravery of the prisoners. It also contrasts with the bravery of the one or two guards who did go out of their way to obey the terms of the Geneva convention and treat the prisoners with dignity.
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