War captive who forgave Japanese tormentors dies
Eric Lomax’s experiences as a prisoner of war left him with physical and emotional scars. But his death this week reminded the world of an extraordinary story of reconciliation.
For years after his return home, Eric Lomax struggled with the legacy of his torture and imprisonment. He had nightmares and sudden flashbacks to the beatings and humiliations meted out in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. His marriage fell apart, and in the immediate post-war period there was little or no support for soldiers who had experienced what people euphemistically called ‘unpleasantness.’
His return to psychological health was only ever partial, and came about when he met a woman to whom he could finally talk about what he had endured.
These parts of Eric’s story are typical of those who suffered torture during the Second World War, experts on trauma say. The terrible conditions at the forced labour camp in which he was imprisoned are well known from the famous film Bridge on the River Kwai.
But what happened years afterwards, in the 1980s, made Eric a well-known figure around the world. International tributes to his inspiring example have graced almost every newspaper as they marked his death, aged 93, this week.
Almost by chance, a friend told him about a Japanese wartime interpreter who had published a remorseful memoir: he regretted his part in the torture and interrogation of British prisoners, was trying to make amends by helping relatives find their graves, and had built a Buddhist temple on the site of the prison camp.
From articles about Takashi Nagase’s book, Eric recognised the man who had tried to force an espionage confession from him. After his home-made radio was discovered in the prison camp he was beaten, caged, left in the baking sun and worse. All the time, Nagase had mocked him and threatened him with execution.
At first Eric was sceptical about the idea of reconciliation, and even of Nagase’s feelings of shame. ‘I strongly suspected that if I were to meet him I’d put my hands round his neck and do him in,’ he admitted.
But when they met on the fateful Bridge, Nagase offered a formal apology and the two men, by then elderly, were reconciled. ‘After our meeting I felt I’d come to some kind of peace and resolution,’ Lomax said. ‘Forgiveness is possible when someone is ready to accept forgiveness. Some time the hating has to stop.’
Truth and Reconciliation
‘In unusual circumstances, unusual things happen.’ These are the words of a man blinded by a terrorist bombing who has managed to forge relationships with his attackers. Eric Lomax’s experiences were just as extreme.
Is it always the case that, as the French say, ‘to understand all is to forgive all?’ Or does it take a burden of unbearable suffering on one side and guilt or shame on the other to achieve a resolution such as that achieved by the late Eric Lomax and his former tormentor?
- In Eric Lomax’s place, could you forgive your tormentors?
- ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,’ said Oscar Wilde. It’s a joke, but is there a serious point here too?
- Think of someone with whom you feel angry and ask yourself if you can forgive them. Maybe you can’t – it’s better to be honest.
- Media project: Look at the links and conduct your own interview with a victim of crime. Explore how they feel about it. Be sensitive: they might not be able to show forgiveness.
Some People Say...
“If you forgive someone, they just walk all over you.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- These people are superheroes. The rest of us can’t hold ourselves to this standard.
- As one of the relatives of a bombing victim says in a documentary about reconciliation: ‘The most important thing is what you can do personally.’ Very few of us are likely ever to suffer what Eric Lomax had to endure. But if you think forgiveness is better than seeking revenge, we all have small ways of acting on that.
- What about standing up for myself?
- Good question. Much religious teaching asks us to ‘turn the other cheek’, which means being ready to not fight back when attacked. It doesn’t mean being a willing victim. Think how often an aggressive reaction inspired by wanting ‘respect’ escalates things. The trick is to find a dignified way to avoid a verbal or physical fight. Not always easy.
- A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used when people want to avoid talking about something that they find too awful or shocking to name clearly or discuss openly. Euphemisms about death, for instance, include phrases like ‘passed away’, ‘departed’ and ‘hopped the twig’.
- Bridge on the River Kwai
- The famous film by director David Lean, about the prisoners of war who were forced to construct the Japanese railway link between Thailand and Burma. Many died.
- To understand all
- There is a famous French saying: ‘Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.’ Of uncertain origin, but quoted using this exact wording in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.