He was startled, you understand, to see that hardly anybody could remember Bataan--having missed the movie, probably, and having little aptitude for the history of remote peoples such as the Americans in the Philippines in 1942 during an event called "World War II."
All the same, it did in fact happen, and you never know when, in the future, some studious person will want to know something about it. Just as there are some now who get quite worked up over Roncesvalles or Thermopylae.
Those were grand military disasters, too, but thanks to the absence of talkative survivors (extremely little recollection followed Thermopylae) we are left to our imaginations about them, so we know the men there were all heroes.
Bataan was different, partly because a good handful of Americans survived and have spoken honestly about their days, their years, in that debacle, with the result that we are denied the pleasure of saluting their heroism and thus forgetting them.
Donald Knox, who spent seven years interviewing 200 survivors (using the witness of 68 of them in his "Death March" volume of 482 pages without an index), has in fact compiled a splendid portrait of the collapse of civilization among men pushed too far, and the odd thing (once you get over the shock that victims are not always or usually heroes) is that you wind up more impressed with the mad animals than with, say, Nathan Hale. You learn more about yourself for one thing.
It is one thing to be a hero, if you can do it in five minutes or so, but quite something else if you've been systematically starved for a year and have dysentery and lice. It takes the ginger right out of you.
There is said to be a society, fortunately small, in which people do not cooperate with each other, do not smile at each other; there are not even family ties, and each human in that society operates as if he were dropped on the earth from outer space with only one mission, to stay alive another day.
The men of Bataan were in much the same position and for the same reasons. There was not enough food to maintain even low levels of health. Many did starve and many simply gave up in despair at conditions about them, finding death an easy and much-desired release.
Those who did survive, Knox was telling me, did so partly through luck, not being on the wrong ship or not being in the presence of a particularly hostile prison guard on a certain day, or not being particularly sick on the certain Wednesday when a march was ordered and it was death to lag behind.
Apart from luck, he said, hate kept most survivors alive. The ones who were too gentle, too loving, too (forgive the word) chivalrous, never even began to make it.
"I had been impressed with Faulkner's speech accepting his Nobel Prize," Knox said, "especially that part at the last in which he says man will prevail."
He thought the men of Bataan might be a fine place to investigate how man will prevail, under extreme hardship.
It's amazing, when you come to think of it, that people are always more interested in a writer like Faulkner and his notion that man will prevail than in the testimony of men who endured extreme hardship. Whose testimony is far more nearly accurate than that of a writer who led an extremely easy and indulgent life, but whose testimony is less lofty and far less inspiring.
There are two great (and many lesser) points of Knox's researches among the survivors. The first and most obvious one is that the brain, along with the rest of the body, does not give the same orders after a period of illness and starvation. It is not nice (see the chapter on "Hell Ships") for Americans to slash other Americans to drink their blood, even to quench an imperative thirst. Nor is it nice for Americans to lure other Americans to give up their food rations, with the knowledge that any man who gave up any food would die with utter certainty. These are not things condoned by our society.
They are things recorded of the Bataan survivors.
Things they recorded of themselves. In fact, it is an amazing salute to the power of truth that the survivors spared their dignity so little in recounting their captivity.
The second great point is that massive suffering is as worthy of attention as the sublimest heroism.
It has long been known that the chief reason it is evil for a dog or a rat to be tortured is simply that it suffers terribly. Even though this has not quite got through the skulls of the more facile philosophers among us, who prefer more difficult grounds and who therefore commonly come to the wrong conclusion, still it is true that in our society the abuse of animals is regarded as an evil that should be tended to.
There are days it comes as a shock, to those of us with easy lives, that men can suffer as much as or more than rats. Know it, of course. Keep forgetting it.
When people say suffering is normal for mammals such as soldiers it is obvious. But when suffering goes past a certain point it turns people not into animals (which they already were and it's a proud name) but monsters. The thin veneer that keeps us from cutting each other's throats when we want a drink, is only a surface, and is cardinal.
People who have trouble imagining they could cold-bloodedly cause a fellow soldier's death will no doubt be enlightened by the Bataan account, and those who think they would behave far better will probably find the book a therapeutic exercise for getting rid of some of their hot air.
The main reason we do not eat the next guy's waffles, leaving him to starve, is that we don't want any more waffles. It is important, especially in the face of soldiers who suffered as greatly as men can suffer, not to give oneself airs.