January 21, 2015
I’ve just finished reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning novel about Australian prisoners of war who were forced by the Japanese to work on the Burma Death Railway. This was a project that took the lives of thousands of men, perhaps 100,000 forced laborers from nearby countries and about 13,000 POWs. They died of overwork and exhaustion, of malnutrition, of cholera and dozens of other causes. (The movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai is a sweetened-up account of the terrible project.) Flanagan’s father had worked building the railroad as a POW.
The central character is Dorrigo Evans, an Australian officer and physician who is the ranking officer in one of the POW camps. After the war he becomes a celebrated hero, but in his heart he knows he did nothing. The men under his command suffered and died, but he did neither of those. He failed as a doctor (there was little he could do) and he failed as an officer to protect those under his command. The more he is celebrated the emptier he feels.
“That was his choice: to refuse to help the agent of death, or to be his servant” (p286), Flanagan has Evans realize.
It is a terrible choice. There were no other options. Evans’s predicament may have been especially severe because of the particular circumstances: some Japanese officers were later convicted of war crimes for their role in the project. But Evans’s predicament is really the terrifying choice faced by all of us in times of war: to refuse to help the agent of death or to be his servant.
I found it hardest to read the passages that focus on the Japanese officers, taking in the justifications they offered for insisting that the work go on despite the conditions of the men and the toll of the work. They had their high-minded reasons. I found myself thinking again and again about our recent descent into becoming a nation that tortures prisoners. We, too, have our justifications that will not bear any scrutiny in the decades to come.
[Flanagan takes his title, by the way, from a classic of Japanese literature by Matsuo Bashō. Dorrigo Evans and his Japanese tormentors were equally enthralled by humane letters–for all the good it did their mortal souls.]