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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides


Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an American airman starved and repeatedly tortured by the Japanese during World War II. Ghost Soldiers recounts the rescue of starved, tortured, and pathogen riddled Allied prisoners from the Japanese death camp at Cabanatuan, Philippines. Humans are predisposed to survival and rescue stories, especially stories with martyrs.


Sides relies on Louis Morton's The Fall of the Philippines for general military history, which Sides calls The Fall of the Pacific. Morton's book was an extremely leadership friendly account of the defense of the Philippines, omitting rampant overconfidence and thousands of other blunders made by military leaders. Not surprisingly, Sides thinks Douglas MacArthur's abysmal plan to defend the malaria riddled Bataan Peninsula death trap was excellent.


Both books spread faulty ideas about World War II's context. Both are infected with social tyranny. Both try to excuse Japanese actions by attributing Japanese behavior to outside forces while at the same time calling Filipinos and Americans numerous slurs such as "quisling" and "virulently racist." Sides sympathizes with Japanese General Masaharu Homma, apparently because of Homma's artistic interests, blaming Homma's cruelty and indifference on "French nihilism."


Contemporary authors too often take explanations for aggression from individuals engaged in aggression at face value. Both books deliver atrocious ethical reasoning, though Hillenbrand did find time to write an entire chapter on the boring technical details of B-24 bombers.



Survival stories are better when containing first person accounts. The following are much better books than Unbroken and Ghost Soldiers: Death March by Donald Knox; Comfort Women Speak by Sangmie Choi Schellstede and Soon Mi Yu; Into the Rising Sun by Patrick O'Donnell; No Bugles, No Drums by Rudy Tomedi; Hey, Mac, Where You Been? by Henry Berry; Nam by Mark Baker; This Is Paradise! by Hyok Kang; The Naked Island by Russell Braddon; Witness by Joshua M. Greene and Shiva Kumar; Voices from D-Day by Jonathan Bastable; Everything We Had by Al Santoli; Beyond Valor by Patrick O'Donnell.


The latter books lack the prose glitz of Unbroken and Ghost Soldiers but make up for it in realism, with errors likely resulting from front line individuals not being informed rather than from inexcusable, unethical fallacies. Not recommended.



JT Fournier, last updated May 14, 2014


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