To End All Wars, the autobiographical account by Ernest Gordon, a British Army officer captured by the Japanese during World War II and assigned to the building of the Burma-Siam railway. Each day Gordon joined a work detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swampland. If a prisoner appeared to lag, a Japanese guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Ultimately, 80,000 prisoners died.
“Death was everywhere. Men collapsed in their tracks, from thirst, exhaustion, disease, and starvation. But death did not work fast enough for the Japanese, so they tried to assist him in his grim harvesting, as they drove the work of the railway.” (67)
“Death called to us in every direction. It was in the air we breathed, the food we ate, the things we talked about…It was so easy to die. Those who decided that they had no futher reason for living pulled down the shades and quietly expired. (72)
“Cholera victims were not buried as were those who died daily; they were burned. On great blazing pyres were placed the remains of men who had once been husbands, sons, lovers, friends. While the flames crackled around them in shimmering heat, they would turn, kick, bend and reach, then rise in a macabre dance- their eerie dance of farewell” (73)
“As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease too an ever increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the slope of degradation… The weak were trampled- the sick ignored. When a man lay dying we had no word of comfort for him. When we cried we averted our heads. Men cursed the Japanese, their neighbors, God. Cursing became such an obsession that they constructed whole sentences in which every word was a curse.
We had no church, no chaplain, no services. Many had prayed, but only for themselves. Nothing happened. They has appealed to God as an expedient. But God had apparently refused to be treated as one. We had long since resigned ourselves to be derelicts. We were the forsaken men- forsaken by our friends, our families, by our Government. Now even God seemed to have left us.
Gordon could feel himself gradually wasting away from a combination of beriberi, worms, malaria, dysentery, typhoid, and diphtheria. Paralyzed and unable to eat, he asked to be laid in the Death House.
The floor in the hut was a sea of mud. And there were the smells; the tropical ulcers eating into flesh and bone, overflowing latrines, unwashed men, sick men. Worst of all was the sweet, evil smell of bed-bugs by the million, crawling over us to steal the little fresh air that still clung to our bones. The swarming flies struck me as obsene.
THE BATTLE WITH REASON AND A TURNING POINT
This time death seemed so much more matter-of- fact. I was resisting the idea.
When? For me was NOT NOW.
ERNEST: Doctors are naturally pessimistic. They are wrong. I am not going to die.
REASON: In case you kick the bucket- leave your affairs as tidy as possible- write your parents what to do when you die. There is no escape.
ERNEST: Life has to be cherished. I’m not one to surrender. But what do I do about it.
THE VOICE OF FAITH: You could live. You could be. You could do. There’s a purpose to fulfill. You become more aware of it each day you endure. This is your task and your’s only
ERNEST: GOOD ENOUGH- I’ll get on it.
THE MIRACLE ON THE RIVER KWAI
A Christian named Dusty appears in the Death House- talked, cared, comforted, washed, soothed, salved- “ I’ll clean out the pus”- fed- served- sacrificed- indomitable optimism- gets Ernest to a clean hut
CHRISTIANITY IMPRESSES ERNEST
“On occasions we marched into the countryside on labor details- we saw the difference in Christian natives, we saw the differences between the Christian way and the Oriental one.
Usually we were treated with indifference and contempt. Our plight meant nothing to the yellow –robed Buddhist priests. Why should it? They were on their way to salvation by non-attachment… there was no place for mercy in their philosophy.
But we once came to a village where we received a treatment so different it astonished us. There was mercy in their eyes. We were given cakes, eggs, bananas, medicine, and honey. Later we learned that this village had been converted to Christianity by missionaries. The Japanese found out about their friendly behavior and punished them severely for it.”
CHRISTIANITY IMPRESSES THE CAMP
One event in particular shook the prisoners. A Japanese guard discovered that a shovel was missing. When no one confessed to the theft, he screamed, "All die! All die!" and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in the line. At that instant an enlisted man stepped forward and said, "I did it."
Enraged, the guard lifted his weapon high in the air and brought the rifle butt down on the soldier's skull, killing him. That evening, when tools were inventoried again, the work crew discovered a mistake had been made: No shovel was missing.
One of the prisoners remembered the verse, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Attitudes in the camp began to shift. With no prompting, prisoners began looking out for each other rather than themselves.
ERNEST DEBATES DUSTY
ERNEST: Why doesn’t God do something?
DUSTY: Maybe He does… maybe He does… but we just can’t see it right now. Maybe our vision isn’t so good right now. “for we see as in a glass darkly”. I suppose that eventually we will see and understand.
BEGINS TO HEAR THE BIBLE- Dusty reads John out loud.
“I lay back on my sleeping platform and let my mind dwell on these words. There was truth in them. Both Dusty and Dinty exemplified it.
For the first time I understood. Each man had a faith that lent a special grace to his personality. It was a power and presence greater than themselves. There was a life infinitely more complex and beautiful that I had ever imagined. True, there was hatred… but there was also love. There was death. But there was also life.
GOD HAD NOT LEFT US. HE WAS THERE WITH US- He was calling us to live the divine life in fellowship. I was beginning to be aware of the miracle that God was working in the Death Camp by the River Kwai.
THE MEN MAKE ERNEST THE ‘CHAPLAIN’-
ERNEST: I can’t possibly do that.
“Our men think you can do it. They know you are a fighting soldier and you’ve been to the university”
ERNEST: What good will it do?
“Perhaps we haven’t understood Christianity right in the past. We need to know if it’s absolute ‘dingo” or not.”
“I had to throw out the doctrinal expression that Christianity was only for nice people who had been brought up in nice homes and gone to nice schools where they had learned to do nice things. Heaven for this group was a kind of perpetual tea-party with thin cucumber sandwiches and smoky-tasting tea served in fine bone-china cups.”
At each successive meeting the numbers grew.
Through our readings in the gospels we gradually came to know Jesus. He was one of us. Like us, He had no place to lay His head, no ffod for His belly, no friends in high places. He too had known bone-weariness from too much toil; the suffering, the rejection, the disappointments that make up the fabric of life.
As we read and talked, he became flesh and blood. He was suspended on the cross and tormented with the hell of pain; but he had not been broken. He remained free and alive, as the Resurrection affirmed.
We experienced His love…passionate, other-centered…in fellowhip of freedom and love we found truth, and with truth a wonderful unity, of harmony and peace.
CHRISTIANITY TRANSFORMS THE CAMP
Organized service teams- they start to minister and improve conditions. Assign duties- visit sick- listen- encouraged- diligently did our daily charge-
The cross became central- God was not indifferent to suffering- He suffered so we could serve. No one knew the answer to the mystery- but we saw that much of suffering was caused by man’s inhumanity- selfishness- greed- some suffering was inexplicable- but we knew that God was not indifferent to pain.
We stopped complaining- we were not absent from pain, but faith allowed us to walk through it. Suffering was no longer locked up in our house of self-pity.
Laughter was heard in the camp- Worship services were started- A school was started- language and music was taught. Christmas came to camp.
THE LAST IMPOSSIBLE HURDLE- FORGIVENESS
“IT’S HARD TO BE A DISCIPLE, LORD”
We were beginning to understand that there were no easy ways for God- so there were no easy ways for us.
Carloads of Japanese wounded begin to pour in. The Japanese did not care a tinker’s damn for their own wounded. These men were in a shocking state. I have never seen men filthier. They were the enemy, more cowed and defeated than we had ever been.
Without a word most of our officers begin to help them.
An Allied officer screamed from another section in the train, “What bloody fools you are! Don’t you realize that those are the enemy?”
“Have you never heard the story of the man going from Jerusalem to Jericho?”
“That’s different- that’s in the Bible- these are swine!”
“We are called to the least of these whether we like it or not.”
It was time to let Jesus be my Savior and my LORD.
“As I journey with those of the Way I see the victory over the impersonal, destructive and enslaving forces at work in the world has been given to mankind because of what Jesus has done. This is good news! God, in Christ has shared his suffering. He has not shunned the responsibility of freedom. He shares in our saddest and most painful experiences. He comes into our Death House to lead us through it.”
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