Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The fiction and reality of heroism

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 113 on the building of the bridge on the River Kwai.
These days, what most people know of Burma-Siam Railway, and its famous span across the Kwai Yai has one foot firmly planted in the manipulations of fiction. In 1952, Pierre Boulleel, a French-born engineer, author, and British Special Forces resistance fighter in China, Burma, and Indochina in World War II, published his second novel. Titled The Bridge on the River Kwai, it was based loosely on events at one Allied POW Camp near Kanchanaburi during the war.

In the course of the novel, British prisoners are forced by a brutal Japanese commander to build a wooden rail bridge across the river, only to watch it be blown by their own countrymen upon completion. In a novelist's trick, however, the pitiable conditions and backbreaking work done by the POW's become vehicles for the prisoners to rediscover their self-respect in the face of Japanese humiliations. In real life, of course, as men died and others sweated and struggled to live another day - while working at the slowest pace possible under the Japanese - the broad strokes of heroism Bouelle described were far less showy and far more lethal. According to historians, when the railroad was completed seventeen months later, in October 1943, more than sixteen thousand Allied prisoners - a city's worth of men - would perish, as would as many as 150,000 Thai, Burmese, Indonesian, and Malaysian conscript laborers, people barely mentioned in Bouelle's book.
When we lived in Australia, I had a couple friends whose families had been shadowed by the brutality of the building of the bridge.

I never cease to be struck by the asymmetry of reporting on events. From Webster's numbers, one may guess that the local people had ten times as many citizens affected by the Japanese cruelty as the Allied soldiers and yet virtually everything we know is based on the experience of the Western allies. It is to some degree a function of universal literacy in the West and productive publishing companies but that's not the complete answer. Almost everything that is in print about the Six Day War, for example, is from the perspective of western observers or the Israeli's and yet the Arab belligerent forces were 2.5 times the number of the Israelis.

I suspect that, in combination with universal literacy and well-developed publishing sectors, simply the culture of reading (and therefore demand for reading materials) and the concomitant cultural openness and curiosity, has a far greater cumulative impact than we recognize.

1 comment:

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