Eugenia C. Kiesling
of Brian MacArthur, Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the
Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45. New York: Random House,
2005. Pp.xxx, 458. ISBN 978-1-4000-6413-7.
Surviving the Sword
contains a remarkable amount of shit. Hardly a page passes without a
reference to diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, latrines, toilet paper,
or the lack thereof. Every military history should be as honest.
Brian MacArthur's gripping account of the experience of the mostly
British and Australian soldiers held captive by the Imperial
Japanese Army in the Far East during the Second World War is a
reminder that war is unspeakably nasty.
MacArthur's purpose is to remind an oblivious world of the forgotten
men of a forgotten theater. The basic task is not especially
challenging. The events are circumscribed in time and space, well
documented, and intrinsically interesting. The difficulty lies in
bringing the reader to comprehend events described by one survivor
as not "so bad as you think and worse than you can ever imagine"
(152). But MacArthur does an admirable job in this compelling work. Indeed, the smoothly-written accounts of excrement, not to mention
torture and torturous medical procedures, are almost as pleasant to
read as they are shocking in content.
first--and best--of the work's three parts begins with the fall of
Singapore and offers a roughly chronological narrative of the
disparate fates of two groups of men--those who remained for the
duration of the war in nearby Changi Camp and their comrades sent
north to labor, suffer, and die on the notorious Thailand-Burma
Railroad. In this part we are introduced to the general pattern of
the prisoner of war existence and to the heroes of MacArthur's story,
especially Col. Philip Toosey, the senior officer at Tamarkan Camp,
and Australian Lt. Col. E.E. "Weary" Dunlop, the senior medical
officer at Hintok Mountain camp.
II is a set of thematic chapters on subjects like survival,
religion, smoking, and officers. Much of the detail is fascinating,
but there is considerable repetition of ideas introduced earlier,
and the occasional efforts at analysis fall flat.
third part expands the story geographically to describe the Fepow
(Far East prisoner of war) experience in Japan, the Island of
Haruku, North Borneo, and, for the last year of the war, back at
Changri. Even if these moving episodes add little novelty to the
catalogue of horrors already presented, they are essential to
MacArthur's self-imposed mandate to tell the full story of the
forgotten prisoners of the Far East.
MacArthur, a career newspaper editor, is more journalist than
historian, and the strengths of the work are those of good
journalism. It is enormously readable, a 400-page book digestible in
a single sitting. Descriptions of atrocity, suffering, and courage
are more effective for the crisp and superficially dispassionate
style of presentation. By eschewing the contemporary American
tendency to treat captivity itself as a form of heroism, MacArthur
allows us to reflect upon the prisoners' wide range of responses to
their ordeal. This is very much a book about people, and MacArthur
presents much of the story in the Fepows' own words, smoothly
interweaving personal accounts and historical narrative.
book's flaws reflect the difference between journalism and history.
The smooth integration of various statements from diaries, memoires,
and letters may enhance the book's literary grace, but it impedes
the precise identification of sources and gives MacArthur no
opportunity to weigh their value. Publishers may dislike footnotes,
but the endnotes are too few and, in the absence of markers in the
text, difficult to use.
will emulate MacArthur in paying excessive attention to the work's
only "source" criticism, that aimed at director David Lean's
1957 film, The Bridge on the
River Kwai (77-8). Since film is fiction, it would have sufficed
to note that Col. Toosey, the actual commander at Camp Tamarkan, was
nothing like Alec Guinness's portrayal of Colonel Nicholson.
Apparently unwilling to trust his readers to know the difference
between drama and fact, MacArthur feels compelled to exaggerate
Toosey's differences from Nicholson's. Thus, if Nicholson was a
collaborator (not, incidentally, an adequate description of this
complex character), then Toosey necessarily was not. MacArthur's
determination to distinguish the real Toosey from the fictitious
Nicholson obviates any detailed effort to explain Toosey's
effectiveness in dealing with the Japanese. "Dealing" is a key word
here, for the camp commanders had necessarily to collaborate, in the
non-pejorative sense used by MacArthur (78), with the Japanese.
Toosey occasionally came to the brink of sheer, suicidal resistance;
typically, however, he managed to improve his men's lot by gradually
assuming more and more control over both camp operations and the
building of the bridges (62, 78).
Elsewhere, MacArthur implies the importance of establishing a form
of modus vivendi with the Japan when he criticizes two other
senior officers: "neither Harris nor Kappe was as effective as other
Allied commanders in dealing with their Japanese captors. They
failed to eke out concessions, so the men became progressively more
exhausted and increasing numbers fell sick" (116). Soldiers'
responsibilities in captivity have been the subject of much
discussion and national soul-searching in the past century. A
nuanced picture of Toosey's balance of compromise and resistance
would contribute to that valuable conversation.
MacArthur prefers to tell simple, if gripping, stories rather than
analyze the complexities of cooperation and collaboration. For
example, the chapter "Survival" insists on the importance of "the
will to live." Though admitting that "some men lived by the law of
the jungle," MacArthur underestimates the extent to which a POW camp might become a Hobbesian world. His version of the will
to live is "allied" with "a sense of common humanity—which embraced
comradeship, compassion, and courage, as well as self-sacrifice,
pride, and fortitude" and proved "the greatest savior of lives" (153). If only this were necessarily true.
MacArthur ignores the implications of his own darker anecdotes. He
draws no conclusion from the observation in the chapter on the black
market that "stealing was rife--even from fellow prisoners, even from
men on their deathbeds" (226). Conditions at Camp Sonkurai were so
cruel, he admits, that "sentimentality was fatal, and the men became
hardened" (132), a proposition in stark contrast with the thesis
that prisoners survived by helping one another. The story of the man
who died from apathy in spite of the care he received is meant to
illustrate the generosity of his friends, but one might focus
instead on his despair's source in the repeated theft of his
possessions by other prisoners (134).
chapter is an encomium to religion as the source of "the most
uplifting moments of captivity" (189), but MacArthur overplays the
reports of believers. Only one telling reference to "the
indifference of most of the men" (193) puts religion in perspective,
suggesting there is more to be learned about the experience of the
average prisoner in the chapters on books and letters.
see the Fepows' world in horrific microcosm, one need only look at
the chapter on "Jungle Medicine." Here MacArthur describes the
physical consequences of prison conditions, the brutal unconcern of
the Japanese, and the desperate measures taken by camp medical staff
to save what lives they could. One is simultaneously appalled and
inspired by the ingenuity of the doctors in improvising medicines
and medical instruments. And doctors showed indescribable courage as
well, whether the moral courage to cut an ulcerous leg to the tibia
with a sharpened spoon or the physical courage to accept regular
beatings from the Japanese as the price for keeping sick men in
Although MacArthur's heroes were mostly officers, the chapters on
"Officers and Gentlemen" is the most accusatory in the book. He lays
plenty of charges against selfish officers while overlooking some
crucial questions: What is the proper role of officers in a prison
camp? What is the justification for distinctions between officers
and other ranks? Where is the line between enforcing military
discipline to maintain morale and doing so out of selfishness? Should one praise the generosity of the officers who contributed a
third of their pay to the sick or wonder that they, who did no
physical labor, accepted the wherewithal to supplement their rations
while their subordinates died of malnutrition? MacArthur seems to
beg the question when he criticizes officers who took uniforms from
other ranks while praising those whose neatness of dress increased
their status, and therefore their effectiveness, in dealing with the
Japanese (287). In the end, however, whatever arguments one can make
for the military utility of a distinct officer class, MacArthur's
statistics illustrating the difference in the mortality rate between
officers and other ranks are shocking.
Given that Surviving the Sword is only slightly analytical
even within its own sphere, it is not surprising that MacArthur
makes no effort to discuss POWs more generally, other
than to reiterate the point that the death rates for British and
Australian prisoners were much higher in Japanese than in German
camps. That difference is enormous, but the Fepow experience looks
slightly less shocking if compared to the far higher POW death
rates on both sides during the Russo-German War. The story of
prisoner mortality is even more interesting if one considers the Korean War.
Although conditions for prisoners in Korea were not as bad as those
in Japanese camps, the mortality rate for American (though not
British) captives exceeded the Fepows's 27%.
Comparisons of Fepows with prisoners held in Germany might have been
more productive than MacArthur imagines. His laudable desire to
demonstrate that the Fepow experience shared little with that of the
characters in films like Colditz (1955, dir. Guy Hamilton) and The Great Escape
(1963, dir. John Sturges)
ignores the fact that neither did that of most of the British
prisoners of the Germans. Virtually no one escaped from the Japanese
camps, but escape from German camps was also rare and, more to the
point, on very few prisoners' minds. Moreover, if prisoners held in
Western Europe suffered less deprivation and brutality than those in
Asia, there were distinctive psychological stresses associated with
captivity. It would be worth studying whether, in addition to
their physical sufferings, Fepows suffered to the same degree the
feelings of failure, guilt, loneliness, and that desperate desire to
be alone which oppressed residents the Stalags. Perhaps such
psychological ailments were to be found mostly in the relatively
comfortable camp at Changri.
the psychological state of POWs warrants further study,
so too does that of their captors. Why did they starve men whose
labor they required to construct an important railroad? Why did
they allow special meals for Christmas (185) while withholding Red
Cross parcels and, most inhumanely of all, mail (380-1)? Why force
the men to live in conditions likely to bring the Japanese
themselves into close contact with cholera and dysentery? How did
they square their treatment of other soldiers and other human beings
with their vision of soldierly honor and human decency? To answer
these questions is not McArthur's problem, but offering a few
paragraphs about bushido merely underscores the poverty of
about the POW experience defies rational analysis. It is not hard
to fathom why some prisoners greeted the end of the war by murdering
Japanese guards, sometimes, returning to a ubiquitous subject, by
drowning them in latrines. But how does one explain the actions of
the British lieutenant who, having called a parade for the specific
purpose of accepting his erstwhile captor's sword, generously
returned the surrendered blade (378)?
Incidents like these make Surviving the Sword a great human
interest story, if not a great work of history. In his well-written
book, Brian MacArthur vividly brings the story of the Fepows to a
general audience. I highly recommended it to anyone interested in
the POW experience or, more generally, in the behavior of human
beings under inhuman conditions.
U.S. Military Academy, West