Main Site         

Three ways human beings cope with barbarity – the extraordinary story of Eric Lomax

2012 October 14
by Paul Vallely

We tell three stories about how a human being can respond to barbarity. One is the tragedy of revenge. One offers the hope of forgiveness. And one diverts itself with furious activity in an attempt to forget. But the story of Eric Lomax refuses to conform neatly to such templates.

Lomax, who has just died aged 93, was one of thousands of British soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942 and used as slaves to build the 418-mile railway to Burma which included the notorious Bridge on the River Kwai. There he was made to stand at attention for hours in the burning sun and then so savagely beaten  there that afterwards there was not a patch of unbruised skin between his shoulders and knees. Nine hundred blows in six hours broke arms and ribs. Water was pumped into his nose and mouth. His screams were heard for miles. At night he was confined to a cage coated in his own excrement.

Somehow he survived. But the torture continued back in Scotland after the war. Haunted by the brutal and sadistic humiliation the Japanese inflicted those who had undergone what amounted, in their eyes, to the shame of surrender, For decades Lomax was tormented by nightmares. Post-traumatic stress led to estrangement from his father and the breakdown of his marriage. The mental scars refused to fade.

Then, on a long train journey, he met a Canadian girl 17 years his junior and began, for the first time, to talk about his wartime experiences, though he still refused to speak about anything of “the descent into hell” which happened after he was taken prisoner. Despite violent mood swings, which plunged him into week-long black silences, she married him. The trauma grew worse after his retirement and he spent the Eighties trying to track down his chief torturer and fantasising about revenge.

But then, some 40 years after the war had ended, his wife contacted at the newly-formed Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and took him on the 600-mile journey to its London offices. There a fellow survivor told him, he heard of a book called Crosses and Tigers written by the man who had been an interpreter to the torturers.

In it Takashi Nagase told how, after the war, he worked for the Allies to locate thousands of burial sites along the Burma Railway. Ashamed of his wartime actions Nagase thought about suicide but instead began campaigning for reconciliation which made him deeply unpopular in Japan. He set up a Buddhist temple at the River Kwai to atone. He was still haunted, he wrote, by the brutal torture of one particular prisoner. But the depths of his remorse brought him the feeling he had been forgiven.

As he read Lomax suddenly realised that prisoner was him. He would never forgive, he announced. His indignant wife wrote to Nagase and told him his feeling of having been forgiven was bogus. Nagase replied and declared: “The dagger of your letter thrusted me into my heart to the bottom.”  Eventually said so. A meeting at the River Kwai was arranged between the two old enemies and Lomax set off simmering with rage.

Anger, hurt and bitterness is the most common human response to cruelty.  It is everywhere. It is what fuels sectarianism in Iran, resistance in Afghanistan and the blood feuds of Syria.  Often it does not abate. When the killers of James Bulger were released with new identities, eight years after the murder, the dead toddler’s mother said:  “I never knew I had so much hate in me.” Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of the victims of the Moors Murderers, nursed an inability to forgive for almost half a century until she died recently.

Forgiveness is the hardest response, which is why we have to scour contemporary history to find examples. Back in 1987 Gordon Wilson stunned the world by announcing that he forgave the IRA bombers who killed his daughter at the annual Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen where she died clutching his hand.  The moment became a turning point in forcing Irish Republicans to abandon armed struggle. A decade later an Australian missionary Gladys Staines went on channel after channel in India to forgive a cruel mob of militant Hindus who had burned her husband and two sons to death. The world looks on in awe and bewilderment at such huge gestures.

Indeed sometimes we resent them. When Gee Walker in Liverpool in 2005 declared that she forgave the racist murderers of her 18-year-old son, Anthony, some newspapers actually criticised her and said that murdering scum did not need forgiving. Her reaction, they implied, was somehow unnatural; we should fight hate with hate.

The world has much more fellow feeling with a woman like Julie Nicholson whose daughter Jenny was killed in the 7/7 London bombings the same year. Mrs Nicholson announced she could not forgive and resigned as an Anglican priest to avoid the hypocrisy of having to preach a forgiveness she did not feel.  Instead of endlessly grappling with an irresolvable issue she preferred “getting on with leading a good and creative life and making a difference in the world”. That response is shared by many bereaved families who set up foundations to combat the evils that killed their child in an attempt to prove that they did not die in vain.

Eric Lomax was different. He set out almost 50 years after the war to meet Takashi Nagase his heart filled with utter loathing and hate. But something extraordinary happened.

“When we met, Nagase greeted me with a formal bow,” he wrote on the website of the Forgiveness Project. “I took his hand and said in Japanese, ‘Good morning, Mr. Nagase, how are you?’ He was trembling and crying, and he said over and over again: ‘I am so sorry, so very sorry’  I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around.”. Lomax found himself saying: “We both survived”. Nagase replied: “I think I can die safely now”. In the days that followed forgiveness turned to a friendship which last almost two decades.

What had happened? Gee Walker offers a clue. Asked what she felt about the two youths who had killed her son, she replied: “I’d love to do the motherly thing and sit them down and find out why… what’s missing in their lives.”

Like Eric Lomax, she saw people not perpetrators before her. She also instinctively understood what he had learned the hard way: the cost of not forgiving. “Why live a life sentence?” she asked. “Hate killed my son. Why should I be a victim too?” Forgiveness set her free.

Forgiveness need not be an instinct as much as a process. The story Eric Lomax tells in his extraordinary book The Railway Man shows that. “Some time the hating has to stop,” he wrote.  It took Eric Lomax fifty years to exorcise his demons. Very few of us have the strength for that.

The Independent on Sunday

Comments are closed.