Unbroken: Louie’s Triumph

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(This is the first of a three-part series on the right-to-life and the will to live it. It is dedicated to my parents, Jim and Jane Galloway, defenders of the pro-life movement, and to Nellie Gray, the founder of the annual national Right to Life March in Washington, D.C.)

Laura Hillenbrand’s meticulously researched and well-told true story of Louie Zamperini’s life, Unbroken, is exactly what the critics acclaim it to be. I won’t add to the adjectives. I don’t have to. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? But, please take my word for it, read the book, don’t just go and see the movie.

What intrigued me about Hillenbrand’s masterpiece was her discussion of eugenics, not just in the first chapter (pgs. 11-12), but, to me, as an indirect yet undeniable theme throughout the story:

“In the 1930’s, America was infatuated with the pseudoscience of eugenics and its promise of strengthening the human race by culling the ‘unfit’ from the genetic pool.”

She’s no doubt an accomplished writer. Seabiscuit, her first book, and the movie that followed were both met with rave reviews. But, her deliberate mention of the policies of eugenics and sterilization in America’s shameful past in Unbroken may yet finally cue a current generation to understand that history does, indeed, repeat itself.

The book’s legitimate hero is Louie Zamperini, who may well have faced the forces championing eugenics, in his home state of California, if he had not become a champion himself, representing America as a runner in the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin, alongside the great Jesse Owens. Louie was the man track and field enthusiasts thought would be the first to break the four-minute mile. But, in the era of American eugenics fate may not have been so kind.

Strike-one was that he came from a poor family. Strike-two was that he was a first-generation American from Italian immigrant parents. Strike-three was that he just didn’t “fit” in: he stole, he dreamed of becoming a cowboy, and he couldn’t sit still. He was incorrigible. Who knows what may have happened to him if he was remanded to the wiles of a state-run institution. He would have been an excellent candidate for sterilization because he would have been labeled inferior, criminal, and “feeble-minded.”

But what was, a hundred years ago, the definition of “feeble-mindedness?” And, what are today’s definitions of “viability” and “quality of life?”

As far as being labeled “inferior,” the esteemed judges who made that call in Zamperini’s day were governmental health care and social workers. Tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized in the march to purify our country. The eugenicists’ answer to all the problems of the world was to breed out the infected. Everything from cancer to criminal behavior could be corrected and save future generations if only we acted upon, legislated, and incorporated their common sense mandates.

The son of Charles Darwin, Major Leonard Darwin, the chairman of the First International Eugenics Congress, in 1912, was committed to eugenics and never gave up hope. At the Third International Congress, in 1932, he stated in a letter he’d like “to see a caste system introduced ‘so rigid as to prohibit all movement between the different and social strata’ in order to remedy the ‘harm done’” (“Genes and Eugenics”, New York Times, 8/24/1932). And, no, although the major served in the British Army, he never served in India.

To obliterate undesirable human beings has been a constant societal program or governmental “pogrom” throughout human history. ISIS (or the so called Islamic State) is not re-inventing anything that has not been attempted before. And yet we are continually astonished at how low mankind can go in its depravity and demonic attempts to rid our species of anyone who doesn’t measure up to superior religious, socio-economic, or politically-expedient standards.

We seem to think we have progressed so much sociologically. That we’re much more sophisticated and compassionate towards our fellow man today than say when King Herod slaughtered the innocents or when Emperor Nero fiddled and had Christians fed, if not to lions, then to dogs, or when Cromwell conquered Ireland, or during the bloody reign of the guillotine in the so called fight for liberty and equality during the French Revolution, or in America’s own unconscionable recorded history of slavery, discrimination, and brutality endured by African descended peoples, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian and European immigrants. And, today, especially today, in the fight for the most basic of all human rights, which is seen now only as a privilege, to exit the womb safely. But, we most certainly have not progressed or “evolved” that much at all.

“Culling”

When I was the Training Coordinator for a Counter-Terrorism Task Force working with the Department of Homeland Security, we planned, trained, and exercised for the possibility of an infectious pathogen purposefully planted into our nation’s livestock. This was no joke. It was specifically mentioned in the “Al-Qaeda Play Book.” If it ever happened, it would cause significant damage to our economy by immediately ceasing all international trade in those commodities and send Chicago’s Mercantile Board and the New York Stock Exchange into a tailspin. The answer was to contain the pathogen by killing herds of animals infected or exposed. The polite term for the mass killing is “culling.”

Social Darwinism led to theories of “culling” or the “pseudoscience” of eugenics: the “self-direction of human evolution,” popular at the turn of the last century in the United States and throughout Europe, which quickly spread to Japan and across the world. Sterilization policies of unfit, undesirable, defective and degenerative human beings began in America, and were put into practice in many states, especially in Louie Zamperini’s home state of California.

This happened just before the time of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Stalin, and later, Mao. These despots took these ideas to an immediate extreme. They didn’t wait for more academic and scientific discourse, which had, as early as1932, turned the tide on the “pseudoscience.” Professional scientists seriously began questioning, then differentiating, between the legitimate, long established science of genetics and the racist, inhuman theorists who championed eugenics. The era of socialist-communist-fascist dictators put the pedal to the metal, however, and treated human beings like cattle infected with a dangerous pathogen. Death to the inferiors (read infidels, today) was their mantra. Cull the herd was their remedy. The era of racial, imperialistic superiority was thrust upon the globe with a blitzkrieg strike never seen before in the history of mankind.

In the United States, where nothing less than The American Civil War had to happen just to begin the civil discussion of civil rights, these ideas prospered and propagated long before the Second World War or even The Great War. Here, on our precious soil, stained and sanctified by the blood of patriots, eugenics was championed, not just by Margaret Sanger, but by Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, and Andrew Carnegie; in Europe, by Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Lord Balfour. Ivy League universities supported the movement, but there were dissenters in academia not yet convinced or who were outraged at the lack of scientific methodology behind eugenics and they began to speak out.

Sustained intellectual opposition, who smelled a rat early in the discussion, included American sociologist Lester Frank Ward (“Eugenics, Euthenics, and Eudemics,” 1913), anthropologist Frank Boas (“Eugenics,” The Scientific Monthly, 1916), G. K. Chesterton (Eugenics and Other Evils, 1917). Pope Pius XI, in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, patently condemned eugenics.

But the Third Reich changed all of that, at least for a few generations, when it made holocaust a household word. So did the brutal monster of the rising sun that unleashed satanic forces in the guise of the Japanese Empire upon the orient and, eventually, POWs like Zamperini.

Why is it that a picture can tell a thousand words? Because when the seer sees it, the seer knows. The seer immediately understands without guidance, without editorial comment, without being told what to see. The photographs and news reels showed the world the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, and Treblinka. We watched but at the same time shied away. It was too terrible to view before or after having our dinner. It was, to say the least, unsettling.

And, like the pictures of aborted human beings glued upon placards raised high in the Right to Life March, in Washington, D.C., every year, it makes us cringe. How distasteful, how dare you make me look at that?

Supermen

What Louie Zamperini ran right smack into, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in World War II, and after his encounter with Darwinian sharks and unforgiving seas, was eugenics on steroids. The Japanese considered themselves masters of humanity. They were so far above other races that they treated them like dirt. What they did to the Chinese and Koreans is well documented, I need not go into their atrocities because you should know them already. If you don’t, then shame on you, and me, because as a teacher I bear personal responsibility.

Japan was an isolated country for centuries. Perhaps, in their isolation, they believed themselves to be chosen in some way. As they joined the progressive, so-called civilized, scientific-industrialized world both before and after the Russo-Japanese War and modernized their society, they still kept their ancient culture and adoration of their emperor sacrosanct, while building an empire bent upon subjugation of other nations and the superiority of their own race. It’s intriguing, (not politically or as a military stratagem, mind you) how they could align themselves with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. You can’t have three supermen in the same room. Eugenics would have demanded a showdown sooner or later.

In Hillenbrand’s book, Louie Zamperini is forced by a notorious prison guard, who the POWs’ nicknamed “The Bird,” to elevate a heavy, wooden beam over his head and keep it there for as long as the sadistically warped sergeant wished. If Louie staggered, if he let his arms fall, if he in any way faltered in holding up the wood, another guard was instructed to use the butt of a rifle and jab it into Louie’s torso. If he dropped it…

Despite unimaginable psychological privation and abuse, torture, beatings, being used as a human lab rat for depraved medical experimentation, let alone starvation, Louie does the impossible: he holds up the wooden beam, almost supernaturally, to the dismay of his nemesis, “The Bird,” and to the incalculable, interior joy of his fellow prisoners.

Louie defined, in one dramatic moment in history, human dignity.

Years ago, I was told the story of the Cross of San Damiano. It is from this cross that Jesus spoke to St. Francis, telling him to “go rebuild my church…” This simple, walnut cross has always been an excellent tool for the catechesis of the Crucifixion, just look at it, marvel, and you will see. Go to any Franciscan school or monastery or google it and witness.

And, when you see – when you really see – when it dawns on you for the first time, you will know that the wooden beams of the cross do not hold Him up; He holds up the wooden beams of the cross.

This, to me, was Louie Zamperini’s triumph.

Next: Unbroken: Andy’s Triumph

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