Hero of War: The Railway Man


~ Takashi Nagase, Imperial Japanese Army Officer during WWII, reflecting on his and Japan’s role in the brutality, torture and death suffered on the Burma-Thai “Death Railway”

“He said, ‘Son, have you seen the world? Well, what would you say if I said that you could? Just carry this gun and you’ll even get paid.’ I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

I found myself frozen and sobbing uncontrollably. Sitting there at our living-room sited computer processing photos in Photoshop, listening to iTunes on headphones while Jody milled about the kitchen, a song – Hero of War (Rise Against) – started to play, a song I hadn’t heard in a very long time. Jody, realizing I was unexpectedly in some type of serious distress and came to comfort me as best she could. But unknowing and unexperienced with my own personal brush with PTSD, all that she could do was to hold me.  And that was all I really needed.

“A hero of war, yeah that’s what I’ll be

And when I come home they’ll be damn proud of me

I’ll carry this flag to the grave if I must

Because it’s a flag that I love and a flag that I trust”

For me, this is thankfully a very infrequent occurrence now; the realistic flashbacks, the empty hopelessness, and the crushing sadness all but extinct. I’m not even sure I’ve suffered a service-related nightmare since getting remarried in 2011. But this episode unfortunately shows that parts of my past still coldly lurks, ready to attack, without providing any quarter.

“I kicked in the door, I yelled my commands, the children, they cried, but I got my man. We took him away, A bag over his face, from his family and his friends

They took off his clothes, they pissed in his hands; I told them to stop, but then I joined in. We beat him with guns and batons not just once but again and again”

But it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that brought about this offense to my otherwise happy and settled state of mind. Jody and I recently watched The Railway Man, one of the many movies I have in my Netflix queue that are war-related. This one, however, deals not only with coming to sensible terms with a horrific past, but focuses on the legacy of the atrocities – on all sides – committed by the Japanese during WWII in the Far East.  It was the thoughts of my own remorse weaving through my subconscious resulting from our theatrical viewing that finally erupted to the surface, catalyzed by the powerful song.

Trailer for “The Railway Man”

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction.  Most of them locals.

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction. Most of them locals.

The Railway Man concerns a small corner of the horrific war in the Pacific, just another of the many hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking footnotes to World War II which all cry for telling as well as this movie does. This particular TRUE story will humble the hardest, and touch even the untouchable. Based on the best-selling memoir of Eric Lomax, the story opens in Singapore as the War in the Pacific spreads like an inoperable cancer. Lomax was then a young and idealistic British soldier serving overseas, but was captured by the Japanese in 1942 as Singapore fell to brutal Imperial expansionism. Subsequently, he becomes a slave laborer and prisoner of war compelled to help in the construction of the notorious “Death Railway,” so named because of the thousands who died and were buried along the rails traversing between Thailand to Burma. Some of you may more readily recognize the railway as the backdrop for the fictional movie award-winning movie, Bridge over the River Kwai.

“She walked through bullets and haze

I asked her to stop, I begged her to stay, but she pressed on

So I lifted my gun and I fired away

The shells jumped through the smoke and into the sand that the blood now had soaked

She collapsed with a flag in her hand, a flag white as snow”

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Somehow Lomax miraculously survives the War, and after almost succumbing to his metaphysical injuries, he finds himself…40 years later…precipitously able to confront one of his torturers who had unjustly escaped prosecution as a war criminal. After tracking down ex-Japanese officer/translator Takashi Nagase, who was then running a peace museum at the site of their old POW camp, Lomax returns to Asian in an attempt to let go of a lifetime of bitterness and hate.

Lomax’s trials and tribulations with “shell shock” as it was called back then are painfully portrayed in the film. And it serves to highlight the nuances of injury that veterans may suffer from the impossible situations many find themselves unprepared to confront. National Public Radio recently did a story focused on what is being described as “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This new labeling – a modern recharacterization of PTSD – centers on the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with one’s own core values, like brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing non-combatants.

There is a new push to recognize such injury as a distinct condition within the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder spectrum and treat it more appropriately with customized interventions. For instance, the pain and suffering with which a soldier may be afflicted after he and fellow soldiers kill an entire Iraqi family of five after their car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint requires a treatment that be may quite differently than, say, the care required for more typical post-combat miseries…like killing combatants…that afflict most military personnel who have been exposed first-hand to combat.

But, like I wrote recently in Sober and Sobering, a sharp but narrow focus “here” on our own [insert issue de jour here] doesn’t necessarily capture all the pressure points over “there.” In The Railway Man, the suffering of all sides is highlighted, even though for some extending compassion to a former enemy seems quite inconceivable. The self-absorption that most Americans feel about our veteran’s state of suffering as an inevitable result of the last decade (plus) of sustained combat overseas, and comes silhouetted against a gaping backdrop of the absence of care centered on the horrendous damage suffered by “others” in the very same conflicts.

Take, for example, a drone strike gone bad. The operator of that drone, sitting in a flight simulator station in a secure, air-conditioned building on some Air Base, USA, acts on intelligence, good or “bad.” Targeting what he believes to be a terrorist cell meeting, what ultimately is centered in the weapon’s crosshairs is a wedding party in Afghanistan…destroyed by a Hellfire missile that kills…say…fifty celebrants. Only later does this operator learn that the KIA had no military “value.” Hopefully this person has a conscience and feels some sense of remorse. Maybe he’s stricken to a level that interferes with his daily life. He deserves, no doubt, compassion, intervention and remedy.

But so do the direct and indirect victims of the strike: all the dead, all the mangled injured, their families and friends caught up in the surges of sorrow over such horrific tragedy at what should have been a joyful celebration of the highest order.

The point is that it’s easy to lack empathy for the pain and suffering caused by war when the people hurting aren’t “yours.” Everyone suffers in war; it’s a common mistake to assume that your enemy is not. The maladies of the battlefield haunt all sides and all classes of peoples indiscriminately.

Wars and killing will continue. Wars sometimes involve murder, whether intentional or not. And the longer our current “engagement” overseas continues, the more it becomes lost in all the other noise of everyday life. The realities of war and killing go largely unnoticed by most. Only when we are forced to face the full range of destruction and heartbreak we have wrought does one truly know what it is like to stare into the abyss. For those of us who have shared such a vision, many are on a constant quest, seeking absolution for our own culpability, and remedies for our own lingering moral injury.

“A hero of war, is that what they see

Just medals and scars, so damn proud of me

And I brought home that flag, now it gathers dust

But it’s a flag that I love, it’s the only flag I trust”

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.


Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Lomax was successful in his pursuit. He both found and provided absolution; his remedy, the only one with the efficacy to comprehensively heal, was to become friends with his former captor. The Japanese record throughout Asian is undeniable; I’ve written about their wholesale atrocities before in From Vengeance to Forgiveness, but realize that war and it’s companions Nationalism and Propaganda warp our very natures as human beings. Gaining a more appropriate perspective by re-humanizing his ex-enemy, Lomax wax able to grow and heal as he continued to correspond with Nagase until their deaths in the last decade. Nagase, after the true nature of the war was revealed, became burdened with remorse, inspiring him to help search for POW graves before devoting his later life to reconciliation and peace. Lomax died at age 93 in 2012 while The Railway Man was in editing; sadly, he never saw the finished product. What Lomax achieved in his later years is noble, poignant and of lasting value to us all, which is why his astonishing story remains so compelling…as hard as it is to believe. In the end, Lomax’s inspiring tale provides proof that heroism, humanity and the redeeming power of love are all real, and most times not at all what we expect. Lomax is a Hero of War.  He, along with Nagase, are both Heroes of Life.

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

War always comes at a steep, unaffordable price. I continue on in my own personal journey, and hopefully, like Lomax, one day I will make permanent peace with the violence in my own past. I believe I’m well on my way.

“He said, “Son, have you seen the world?

Well what would you say, if I said that you could….”


See more about The Railway Man’s amazing story here: http://www.therealrailwayman.com/railwayman-the-story.html, and here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2215357/Eric-Lomax-A-tortured-war-hero-Japanese-tormentor-redeeming-power-forgiveness.html