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Excerpts from Through the Valley of the Kwai by Ernest Gordon

p. 74-75 – As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation.

In Changi [a former, and better, camp] the patterns of army life had sustained us. We had huddled together because of our fears, believing there was safety in numbers. We had still shown some consideration for one another.

Now that was gone, swept away. Existence had become so miserable, the odds so heavy against us, that nothing mattered except to survive. We lived by the rule of the jungle, “red in tooth and claw” – the evolutionary law of the survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.”

This became our norm. We called it “The Ladder Club.” Its motto was “I’ve got the ladder up, Jack. I’m all right.” The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten.

When a man lay dying we had no word of mercy. When he cried for our help, we averted our heads. Men cursed the Japanese, their neighbors, themselves, and God. Cursing became such an obsession that they constructed whole sentences in which every word was a curse.

Everyone was his own keeper. It was free enterprise at its worst, with all restraints of morality gone.

Our captors had promised to reduce us to a level “lower than any coolie in Asia.” They were succeeding all too well.

Although we lived by the law of the jungle, the strongest among us still died, and the most selfish, the most self-sufficient, the wiliest and cleverest, perished with the weak.

p. 77-78 – We had no church, no chaplains, no services. If there were men who kept faith alive in their hearts they gave no sign. This was not surprising. At Changi, many had turned to religion as a crutch. But the crutch had not supported them; so they had thrown it away. Many had prayed, but only for themselves. Nothing happened. They had sought personal miracles from the Bible – and none had come. They had appealed to God as an expedient. But God apparently had refused to be treated as one.

We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts. We were the forsaken men – forsaken by our families, by our friends, by our government. Now even God had left us.

Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living. We hated the Japanese. We would willingly have torn them limb from limb, flesh from flesh, had they fallen into our hands. In time even hate died, giving way to numb, black despair.

[Then Ernest becomes very sick, to the point of death, and as he begins to recover, with the help of two men previously unknown to him who became friends (which he said was one of only very few examples he saw of a sick man being helped in this camp), the next phase of his life and their lives began….]

p. 101 – What I experienced – namely, the turning to life away from death – was happening to the camp in general. We were coming through the valley. There was a movement, a stirring in our midst, a presence.

Stories of a different kind began to circulate around the camp, stories of self-sacrifice, heroism, faith, and love. [A man had taken the blame, when the whole unit was threatened with death, for a supposedly-missing shovel and had been beaten to death. The shovel was then found. Another man had been caught trading with the local people (Thais) for medicines for a dying comrade and was sentenced to death by the Japanese. He submitted to it, reading from a little Bible and then cheering up the chaplain right before his execution.]

p. 108-109 – It was dawning on us all – officers and “other ranks” [lower ranks] alike – that the law of the jungle is not the law for men. We had seen for ourselves how quickly it could strip us of our humanity and reduce us to levels lower than beasts.

Death was still with us – no doubt about that. But we were being slowly freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrasts between the forces that make for life and those that make for death. Selfishness, hatred, jealousy, and greed were all anti-life. Love, self-sacrifice, mercy, and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men.

p. 114-115 – In this mood I saw I had to take my place with whatever was good, and begin to give what I had to offer, however small it might be. Around me men were overcoming diseases and recovering their spirits.

Although not entirely conscious of it at the time, I was responding to the power of life and renewal in our midst. This was indeed a miracle, for we were without medicines; we were devoid of the props of society that make for hope.

Were others feeling as I was? I wondered. Were they, too, becoming aware that there is more to life than bread and bacon, pounds and dollars, Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces?

Were we all coming out of the figurative Death House that our lives had become – out of the spiritual pit where fear, selfishness, hatred, and despair are dominant?

Then Reason reasserted its voice. The facts hardly warranted such an assumption. There was still nearly as much sickness as ever. Men were still dying daily.

Then I heard the other voice:

“Perhaps all this is true. But there may be more to it than that. There may be a power beyond that of nature and of men. Haven’t you seen it for yourself at work in Dusty and Dinty [those who cared for him in his illness]? Haven’t you heard the evidence in the sacrifices of others? Possibly there is another form of healing – one that comes from the Most High.”

p. 116 [Ernest is being asked by a sergeant to lead discussions about the meaning of life, and to help men to discover whether Christianity had any true answers. Because Ernest himself did not know, he asked why the sergeant asked.] – The sergeant frowned.

“We’re fed up with all we see around here,” he went on. “Men kicking their mates in the teeth when they’re down – stealing from each other and from the dead ones – crawling to the Japs like rats for scraps from their swill [slop] pails…” His voice shook with emotion. “No sir, it ain’t good, any way you look at it. It’s rotten, rotten, rotten.”

p. 136-137 [Ernest, the author, is leading the discussions on the meaning of life in the bamboo grove] – … In desperation I asked for questions.

It was a risky thing to do. They might have ruined me by driving me into a corner or forcing me into a contest of words in which I’d be the loser. But that wasn’t why they were here. They wanted to find meaning in life, if meaning there was to be found.

They were very kind, these cobbers. When they began to talk they spoke freely of their own inner questioning. They gave their honest views about life on earth, its object and the life hereafter. They were seeking a truth they would be able to apprehend with the heart as well as the mind. When the meeting ended, I knew I could go on.

[Next describes the conclusions they were reaching in their discussions.]

p. 138 – True, he [Jesus] had been strung up on a cross and tormented with the hell of pain; but he had not broken. The weight of law and of prejudice had borne down on him but failed to crush him. He had remained free and alive, as the resurrection affirmed. What he was, what he did, what he said, all made sense for us. We understood that the love expressed so supremely in Jesus was God’s love – the same love we were experiencing for ourselves – the love that is passionate kindness, other-centered rather than self-centered, greater than all the laws of men. It was the love that inspired St. Paul, once he had felt its power, to write:

“Love suffereth long and is kind.”

The doctrines we worked out were meaningful to us. We approached God through Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, the incarnate word. Such an approach seemed logical, for that was the way he had come to us. He had taken flesh, walked in the midst of men, and declared himself by his actions to be full of grace and truth.

We arrived at our understanding of God’s way not one by one, but together. In the fellowship of freedom and love we found truth, and with truth a wonderful sense of unity, of harmony, of peace.

[The author began working with a massage team – a team who were kept back from work, being too sick, but who still gave of themselves to others.]

p.138-9 – Each of us was assigned four or five patients to care for, scattered in different huts throughout the camp. We visited our charges daily. As we massaged we listened to their woes and worries. When the opportunity came we talked, seeking to impart assurance, encouraging their will to live.

Nearly all of our patients were young. Some of them were dying. I had reason then to be thankful for the eternal truths that we had found during our meetings in the bamboo grove. Almost daily, questions were asked of me for which reason had to answer. Almost daily, I was brought face to face with the great problems of human experience.

When an acceptable answer was demanded of me, I had to go beyond Reason – I had to go to Faith. If I had learned to trust Jesus at all, I had to trust him here. Reason said, “We live to die.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

p. 145 – It was experiences such as these that made our discussions in the bamboo grove meaningful. We were developing a keener insight into life and its complexities. We were learning what it means to be alive – to be human. As we became more aware of our responsibility to God the Father, we realized that we were put in this world not to be served but to serve. This truth touched and influenced many of us to some degree, even those who shunned any religious quest. There was a general re-awakening. Men began to smile – even to laugh – and to sing.

[To make a long story short, they also began to produce good things – artificial legs for amputees, a hidden (forbidden) garden for healing herbs, instruments for the doctors and other supplies – taking the guts thrown out by the Japanese to make sutures, and brewing alcohol for anesthetic (of which they had none before), music, art, plays, dances for expression, classes on literature, languages, philosophy, ethics, and dying men found a purpose for living the short time they had left in happiness, helping others.

How sad it was that the environment they found upon returning to England, after liberation, was contrary to the precepts they were living by in the prison camps.]

p. 244 – We made our first contact with the world we had left behind us as we were steaming up the Mersey to our berth in Liverpool. Word went around the ship that the longshoremen were about to strike for higher wages. They agreed, however, to handle our ship before they did so.

Our Jocks were worried that people on shore would not get their rations if ships were not permitted to dock. A delegation came to see me.

“Couldn’t we work the docks?” their spokesman asked. “After all, we’ve done it before and we can do it again.”

I promised I’d do what I could. As soon as we landed I went to a harbor master. He heard me out, all the while looking at me as though I were daft. Then he informed me that to accept the Jocks’ proposal would precipitate a national crisis. The labor unions would oppose it; the Army would forbid it.

We thought we had come home to freedom. While we were prisoners we had been free to contribute to the general good, to create order out of disorder. Here, in a society which paid lip service to freedom, we were prohibited, apparently, from applying the lessons we had learned. Impersonal laws, red tape, regulations in triplicate, were hemming us in like the jungle with invisible walls.

This harsh impression, however, was mellowed by the warm welcome accorded by friendly citizens who shouted, shook our hands, and thrust bottles of beer upon us as our lorries drove through the streets of Liverpool.

– Editorial comments by Sara Schmidt

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