Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lomax on Bridge Over the River Kwai and McArthur on Japanese Swords

A few years ago, I read Eric Lomax’s memoir, Railway Man. Mr. Lomax had been an officer in the Royal Army during WWII who had the extraordinary bad luck to be stationed in Singapore in February of 1942. Because of that ill-fated deployment, he spent three and a half years as a Japanese POW. I found his book to be extremely harrowing to read. Lomax’ title is a reference to the death highway the Japanese army forced POW’s to build from Thailand to Burma. About a third of all POW’s in Japanese hands died. The average man lost 61 pounds of body weight. The payoff to all this is in the ironic postscript to Lomax’ narrative: in the memoir, Lomax describes his feelings, years after the war, of watching the film Bridge over the River Kwai. I know that many people in the Armed Forces dislike some of the films that Hollywood makes, but for Lomax, it was incredibly galling to see William Holden et al. playing POW’s: actors who looked like they hadn’t missed a meal in years portraying prisoners who were living on the brink of starvation. It’s only today, with CGI, that you could have anything remotely approaching realism in a film about those Japanese POW camps.

PostScript: I recall an article in an English language newspaper in Japan about two Japanese officers in Nanking in December in 1937. You know what these young fellows were doing? They were having a contest to see which one could cut off the most heads with their samurai swords. They wanted to see who could get to100 first, but they lost track of each other over the ensuing months. One got to 105 and the other got to 106. Later they had a do-over and they decided to see who could get to 150 first. The happy postscript to this episode was that both men were captured as war criminals and hanged.

Postscript to the postscript: In a stroke of brilliant and entirely appropriate (but not uncontroversial) military insight, McArthur required all Japanese officers to surrender their swords.

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