Monday, 20 July 2009

Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Michael & Elizabeth Norman)

--The blurb--
"For the first four months of 1942, U.S., Filipino, and Japanese soldiers fought what was America’s first major land battle of World War II, the battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. It ended with the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans, the single largest defeat in American military history. The defeat, though, was only the beginning, as Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman make dramatically clear in this powerfully original book. From then until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the prisoners of war suffered an ordeal of unparalleled cruelty and savagery: forty-one months of captivity, starvation rations, dehydration, hard labor, deadly disease, and torture—far from the machinations of General Douglas MacArthur. The Normans bring to the story remarkable feats of reportage and literary empathy. Their protagonist, Ben Steele, is a figure out of Hemingway: a young cowboy turned sketch artist from Montana who joined the army to see the world. Juxtaposed against Steele’s story and the sobering tale of the Death March and its aftermath is the story of a number of Japanese soldiers. The result is an altogether new and original World War II book: it exposes the myths of military heroism as shallow and inadequate; it makes clear, with great literary and human power, that war causes suffering for people on all sides."

--The review--
As time, resources, diversions and worries seem to hurtle at lightning speed towards an ever-changing future, it is perhaps evident that in the kerfuffle to keep up with what's new, some old memories may be forgotten. Thanks to this book, however, the Bataan Death March is one of those events that now won't be. Michael and Elizabeth Norman weave reportage and history with extraordinary skill, and their interest in and passion for their subject constantly shines through. It is grotesque in its description of the soldiers' treatment, injuries and disease, but this is utterly necessary to convey the full horror of the experience, and it goes a long way to making the reader genuinely care for the fates of the servicemen.

However, the focus is not, as one might expect, on making the Americans look like heroes against the demon Japanese. The Japanese are equally well-represented as genuine human beings and the chronicling of these events makes it clear that this is a world suffering, an indiscriminate suffering, borne equally by Filipinos and British as much as by Americans and Japanese. Woven with this is the more detailed story of Ben Steele, a survivor (albeit just barely) of the death march who is still alive today. This is an eventually successful strategy, though it takes some time to pick up speed; interestingly, you only feel to begin that he is the main character when flashbacks to his pre-war life on the Montana prairie start to decrease. This can perhaps be attributed to the novel's occasionally 'piecemeal' feeling, whereby the listing of events with little detail (especially in the runup to the Bataan surrender) can start to make your eyes go a little fuzzy and can make your mind start to wander. The jumping between characters also takes time to get used to, but ultimately enhances the book.

Beyond this, there were just two other areas that struck me as requiring improvement. One was the authors' apparent inability to use prepositions such as 'with' and 'that'; inclusion of these particles would have clarified many of their sentences, making them more fluid. This is also applicable to the couple's use of colons and semi-colons (or, rather, the lack of them). As a Brit, I also took issue with the rather American and sloppy title, "Tears of Darkness". It is explained very clearly at the start of the book that this is a translation of the Japanese word 'anrui', which means exactly this, but surely it would have been more original, and indeed more appropriate, to give the book's title as "Anrui", rather than the more generic one that was eventually chosen? Nevertheless, these are superficial concerns that did not stop me from being moved by the book and finding it a significant read. It shamed me that despite my lengthy studies of World War Two between the ages of 14 and 18, I had not come across these events before. Michael and Elizabeth Norman successfully illuminate and humanise a hidden area of history, and bring to light the many forgotten soldiers who lost their lives in the struggle. We should remember them.

Other works by Elizabeth M Norman
Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam (1990)
We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese (2000)

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