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  • Writer's pictureJulie

Can we learn from old wars?

Book: The Bridge Over the River Kwai (Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï)

Author: Pierre Boulle (English translation by Xan Fielding)

Movie: The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai, written by Pierre Boulle. The movie was written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman; directed by David Lean.

Notes on Content: War novel; the Epic War Film was rated PG and won seven Academy Awards. The plot contains violence (WWII and POWs), some substance abuse, strong language, and phrases that may be considered racist or not politically correct by today's standards.

The Plot: "1942: Boldly advancing through Asia, the Japanese need a train route from Burma going north. In a prison camp, British POWs are forced into labor. The bridge they build will become a symbol of service and survival to one prisoner, Colonel Nicholson, a proud perfectionist. Pitted against the warden, Colonel Saito, Nicholson will nevertheless, out of a distorted sense of duty, aid his enemy. While on the outside, as the Allies race to destroy the bridge, Nicholson must decide which will be the first casualty: his patriotism or his pride." Description from Good Reads.

Leaving Hurtful Memories on the Other Side of the Bridge

In preparation for a recent trip to Thailand (and for an article I was writing about heroes from WWII), I watched the movie, The Bridge On the River Kwai. I had read the book that inspired this movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, years ago---like most high school students would---without any historical or personal foundation, so it was just an assignment to complete and was almost forgotten.

When I read The Bridge Over the River Kwai again before my Thailand trip, it was with a different perspective and purpose. It was difficult for me to read without feeling sad about the brutal realities of war, the attributes of those waging wars, the racial themes and phrases (reflective of 1950's social norms versus today's political correctness), and the stifling pride of the lead characters. It was also a hard read because I could now relate to some of the drama within the pages.

(see a movie trailer about The Bridge Over the River Kwai by visiting: )

Reviews of this book (and the movie) are often punctuated with diatribes about racist themes in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The reviewers (particularly younger readers) are appalled by the repeated stereotypical references to the characters' egotism and hatred as well as the segregation by race and rank, even within the group of prisoners of war (POWs). And reviewers often point out that it's only fiction---some even voice disbelief that such atrocities could ever be factual or that characters committing acts of war could consider what they were doing as honorable. However, WWII historical accounts report far worse conditions and torture than is depicted in this plot. History also reports great acts of valor and honor (not motivated by stubborn pride).

"Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!" (by Colonel Saito), The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Soldiers fighting to defend freedom can have altruistic motives and achieve great outcomes (or the opposite can be true, too). This book gives us glimpses into the reasoning behind officers as they make decisions based on a military view of their duty to safeguard the lives of the men (and women) within their command---as well as why they carry out orders (and do things we may not understand) to fulfill their mission. The book is also a study in the psychological characteristics and effects of being in charge and carrying out acts of war, as well as being the victim of insidious acts of war.

"According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:

The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre." Quotation from Wikipedia ;

Survivors of the Death Railway have different accounts than we find within the book or movie. Many were critical of the fictional version because it was too mild. Reality can be harsher than fiction, or at least harsher than what audiences may have wanted to experience in the 1950s. (For example, I don't think Death Railway POWs --even the officers-- strode around the prison camp in clean, pressed uniforms as they did in the movie version). Perhaps the author, like many other survivors, may have difficulty revealing the horrific realities that are buried within their memories. But even long-buried memories can bubble to the surface to cause us renewed pain---when we least expect it.

A Personal Glimpse Into the War

Like the young reviewers who doubt that war can be this brutal or ego-driven, I didn't understand the historical foundation for racism and war either when I first read The Bridge Over the River Kwai. That was until I was a foreign exchange scholar in the Philippines living with a family who was touched personally and very negatively by the Japanese occupation there. My foster father was the son of a Philippine citizen who worked as an agent for the U.S. Military during WWII and was captured by Japanese soldiers. He and his family endured terrible treatment and torture, which may explain some of my foster father's mental illness and hateful racism.

My foster mother (the local elementary school principal) was a good and kind woman. Her motivation for hosting an American student was honorable. However, my foster father agreed to host an American for dishonorable reasons beyond my understanding and empathy. I'm sad to share that he had developed a deep hatred for all Japanese and American people, and he took some of his need for revenge out on me simply because of my nationality.

I was a naive seventeen-year-old who kept thinking I was either imagining it or must have done something to provoke his ongoing and escalating abuse---until his rage painfully escalated and finally exploded in a way that fully displayed his hate-fueled sickness. He heard news reports about U.S. President Jimmy Carter's human rights speeches, which he felt were an insult to his country---and to himself, very personally (this rage was compounded by U.S. officials recently discovering that he was falsely signing and cashing checks sent to his father in compensation for his military service---for some time after his father had died, so his rage was magnified by the recent financial loss as well as his ego since he considered himself a young POW, entitled to life-long compensation).

He was furious and displaced his aggression to the point where he was yelling at me using the term "you" instead of "your president," and "you" when he spoke of his view of the USA's overuse of world resources, and "you" when he complained about being cut-off from his father's monthly checks from my government ("you"), and "you" when he accused my country of making his family become prisoners of war, and "you" regarding other accusations he had against the USA. I was shocked, confused, and speechless. He began to hit me and pushed me into a chair, clutching his tense hands around my neck as he screamed these accusations, his reddened face within inches of mine.

My foster mother and siblings pulled him off of me and helped me escape to the nearby U.S. Naval Base. When I returned the next day (with guards) to retrieve my belongings, he smugly said that the Japanese hurt him much worse than he hurt me, so he was right to make me, "his U.S. Citizen Daughter," feel some of his pain and pay for my country's mistakes.

I heard that he later became so violent and disturbed that even his devoutly Catholic wife finally left him. I will admit that I still have negative feelings about my foster father that I try to forget (and forgive). He brutally hurt me physically and emotionally (and crushed some of my idealistic belief in the possibility of 'world peace').

However, I listened to his stories about the torturous treatment he and his family endured at the hands of Japanese guards (and he made me experience some of it). My heart is sad for that little boy who experienced and witnessed those horrible acts of war. And for the man who never allowed himself to recover or even cope with his memories in a healthy manner. Sometimes the battles within ourselves can be worse than anything done to us.

Hellfire Pass and the Bridge

But I should get back to the book and our Thailand trip. My sister, Pamela, and I were part of a group tour that stayed in the River Kwai Resotel (a wonderful destination resort), and we visited sites where WWII POWs worked, died... and where they are now honored. This included a ride on the "Death Train," a hike to Hellfire Pass, a visit to cemeteries and the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, and a chance to explore the bridge over the River Kwai. (I should note that I was told that the river was originally named Mae Klong, but was renamed after the book and movie were released---literature and tourism can be powerful forces! And, unlike the movie depiction, the bridge wasn't destroyed. There are still signs of the war damage to the bridge, though.)

(to see a movie clip of the bridge exploding visit: )

We were in Thailand when a heatwave created abnormally humid and hot conditions for November. This helped us feel some of the discomfort those POWs experienced, but at least we had air-conditioned breaks from the heat and the comfort of the beautiful River Kwai Resotel. I honestly can't imagine how the WWII POWs endured the back-breaking work in that boiling heat, not to mention the lack of food, water, clothing, basic sanitation, sleep, health care, beds, and protection from pests, injuries, diseases, ... along with the unspeakably torturous treatment from their Japanese captors.

Remnants of the escavation near the Bridge.

"Above all, one had to assume that the beating-up, the butt-end blows, and even worse forms of brutality through which the Japanese mentality made itself felt were all meaningless as the show of ponderous dignity which was Colonel Nicholson's favorite weapon wielded as a mark of British superiority." Pierre Boulle, The Bridge Over the River Kwai

We visited the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and viewed some of the heart-wrenching exhibits before heading toward the trails to Hellfire Pass. There's an easier route to the left that we intended to take, but it was temporarily closed, so we headed to the right. About a third of the way up the trail, I told my sister to go ahead without me. She's aware of my asthma, so she nodded and continued with the group. The humidity, heat, and my physical unfitness were at play in my shortness of breath, but I knew that another factor was also involved.

There I was, near a memorial to the survivors and the buried bodies of those who had experienced WWII torture and racism---when emotions from my second-hand experience with some of that horror steamed up from where I had buried the memories for many years. I choked with emotion. How can human beings be so violently cruel to each other? Why do we pride one race or nationality above or against another? And what does anyone gain from acts of war? As I made my way back to the museum, I stopped to take photos so my back would be turned (and tears hidden) when a small group of tourists passed me on the path.

Even through the tear-blurred lens, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the area. Lush trees, flower-laden vines, weathered planking, and even the dirt was a vision of color and life. I wondered if the POWs had found comfort in glimpses of that beauty at times, too. I hope so. I'm sure my tears weren't the only ones spilled onto that trail. As I kicked a small rock over the edge of the trail, I tried to leave my anger about my past abuse on the trail---but I could not.

The view from the Bridge.

As I cooled in the air-conditioned museum waiting for my sister and our group to return from their hike, I watched old film clips and interviews of actual soldiers from different countries, and from both sides of the conflict. A black and white film clip contained a particularly powerful message and example for anyone, but perhaps more so for the younger generation who may not have yet developed a foundation to understand the themes or characters in The Bridge Over the River Kwai (or stories of soldiers from any war).

A Japanese guard seemed to order POWs to walk single file in front of the camera. These bone-thin soldiers were only wearing what looked like diapers, and most didn't have shoes. (It had been explained in the exhibits that their clothing quickly deteriorated due to the heat, humidity, infestations, disease, dysentery, scavenging or bartering for food, beatings,... until all they had left was a loincloth, even during the colder, rainy weather). This was a pitiful sight; however, these soldiers walked with marked dignity. I didn't detect defiance, ego, or pride; just humble dignity and honor. They seemed to remember who they were even though they had been stripped of everything that would give them rank or comfort. I believe Pierre Boulle may have tried to portray, through his story, the difference between self-gratifying (face-saving) pride and the dignified pride of honorable service.

"I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I've been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I love India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything, or if it made any difference at all really. Particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight -- tonight!" (Col. Nicholson to Col. Saito after the bridge was completed), The Bridge on the River Kwai

We finally visited the Bridge. The beauty of the River Kwai and historic bridge makes it a site worth visiting without the historical significance. But knowing some of the history of the Death Railway inspires a much more intense look at the bridge construction---the blackened, weathered beams and square-head nails. We were able to walk the entire length of the bridge and slightly beyond before a crowd from other buses arrived.

I felt there was a special solemnity about the site. Perhaps this was prompted by my growing knowledge of the history of it... or my resolve to figuratively leave memories of my "POW" foster father's abuse on the other side of the bridge and not harbor any of the hatred or bigotry such memories could inspire. I thought I had succeeded. As I wrote this, though, my mind retrieved some of the memories I left there----perhaps I need to plan another trip!

The Bridge Over the River Kwai was first released in French in 1952, then translated and released in English in 1954. The French author was actually a WWII prisoner of the Japanese in Southeast Asia, and he based his fictional story on his experience (and his view of military leaders from other countries) as well as the accounts of other POWs. Perhaps Pierre Boulle's Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai can help readers better understand the battles between men ... and the battles within men. And it may also help some of us better evaluate our own personal battles and buried memories (as well as the individual roles we may play in achieving 'world peace').

"The insuperable gap between East and West that exists in some eyes is perhaps nothing more than an optical illusion. Perhaps it is only the conventional way of expressing a popular opinion based on insufficient evidence and masquerading as a universally recognized statement of fact, for which there is no justification at all, not even the plea that it contains an element of truth. During the last war, "saving face" was perhaps as vitally important to the British as it was to the Japanese. Perhaps it dictated the behavior of the former, without their being aware of it, as forcibly and as fatally as it did of the latter, and no doubt that of every other race in the world." Pierre Boulle, The Bridge Over the River Kwai (Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai)

How can we deal with old memories that steam up from buried emotions?

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