Making a difference

I recently picked up a book from a charity shop, having heard the title and knowing there was a film made about it, but that was about all.  The book was The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, and turned out to be a very hard hitting and thought provoking read.  

For those of you unfamiliar with it, it basically falls into three parts: Lomax’s life before World War Two, his life during the war, and his life afterwards.  Before the war he worked for the Post Office in Edinburgh, and had a passion for trains (or “mania” as his captors put it). I have to confess that the way he described the engines made me want to find out a lot more about them, and rekindled my interest in engineering in general. His job involved telegraph and other communications work which was very useful to him during the war. 

He was taken prisoner in Singapore and was put to work on the Siam – Burma railway, working near the infamous Bridge Over The River Kwai, though he was not involved in track clearing and laying or bridge building, but more on maintenance tasks.  

I may have heard it before, but it was shocking to read that conservative estimates put the cost of the railroad at one death for every sleeper, which was roughly one every metre: in total, around a quarter of a million souls perished while building the line. The heavy labour in atrocious conditions would have been bad enough, but coupled with a meagre diet of a couple of handfuls of rice a day meant that most workers were practically starving and weakened severely. Diseases like cholera, malaria and dysentery were lethal. And, to make matters worse, the Japanese were notoriously brutal guards – and I’ve since read that they were as brutal with their own men. 

Lomax was one of the men who built a radio which was subsequently discovered by the guards. HIs description of the torture and beatings that he suffered were extremely harrowing; it’s a wonder he survived them. He didn’t use the phrase explicitly, but it’s clear that he was subjected to waterboarding, amongst other horrors. Eventually he was moved to Singapore to Outram Road jail where his treatment was even worse. He managed to get a transfer to the “easier” Change Jail for a while before going back to Outram Road, where he remained till the end of the war. 

Following he war, he was unable to discuss his experiences with anyone, and for more than half a century harboured a hatred of the Japanese. He describes how he was eventually put in touch with an interpreter who had been present during some of his worst treatment, and eventually met up with his former enemy in Thailand on the Kwai Bridge. They spent a lot of time talking and apparently got on very well. Lomax even visited his former foe in Japan and spent time with him there. 

I found this part of the book particularly emotional, and it set me thinking about the nature of a human being’s capacity to inflict pain and suffering on another. I’ve seen in documentaries since that some of the Japanese said they were simply following orders; there were some who wanted to help their prisoners but were unable to because of the fear of reprisal from their fellow soldiers. Senior command had set a target – finishing the railway in 18 months – and they were determined to make that happen irrespective of the cost. Who gets to decide what is morally right or morally wrong in situations like that? The victors?

I guess that one can never know how one would respond if in a similar position, but in the cold light of day in a relatively peaceful environment it’s easy to say that you would refuse those orders. Could you pull the trigger, mete out beatings, carry out interrogations? What would you do if you knew someone who could? Do you sit and watcg while armies around the world carry on this behaviour in the name of their government, of their version of right?  

Voting in local and national elections is an important act, because it’s your chance to make your opinions heard. Do you vote for the people who condone that sort of action, that sort of treatment of others? Or do you vote for those with a track record of opposing those who would do harm to other humans?

Whatever you do, saying nothing, doing nothing, makes you complicit. You have a voice, so please use it to stand against those who would do harm to others. And remember – children aren’t born hating other humans; those around them imprint their values and judgements, even from an early age. You can make a difference.


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