Book Review: To End All Wars

Gripping. Poignant. Inspiring. Thought-provoking. Every one of these words could be used to describe Ernest Gordon’s To End All Wars. And yet, strangely enough, none of them would fully do it justice. It is a war story, to be sure: but it’s unlike any other war story I’ve ever read.

Originally published in 1963 under the title Through the Valley of the Kwai, this book is Ernest Gordon’s first-hand account of the time he spent in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.  A native of Scotland, and an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon was captured by Japanese troops at the age of twenty-four and forced, along with other Bitish prisoners, to build the infamous “Death Railway” – a 285 mile long railway stretching between Thailand and Burma. Faced by the brutality of the guards and the squalor of the prison camp, Gordon and many others gave themselves over to anger, bitterness, and despair.

But then something unexpected happened. Inspired by Dusty Miller, a fellow inmate and ardent Christian, Gordon began reading the Bible anew, and came to a saving knowledge of Christ as a result (when the war was over, he went on to become a Presbyterian minister). He organized a regular Bible study so he and the other prisoners could meet to discuss what they had read in God’s Word. A change both dramatic and profound was wrought in the attitude of the men.

Gordon writes,

As we became more aware of our responsibility to God the Father, we realized that we were put into this world not to be served but to serve. This truth touched and influenced many of us to some degree – even some of those who shunned any religious quest. Men began to smile – even to laugh – and sing.

The resurgence of life increased. It grew and leavened the camp, expressing itself in men’s increased concern for their neighbors.

But these men also faced another challenge, and one that was much more difficult: that of loving and forgiving their enemies. The Japanese prison guards were savage men who enacted countless cruelties on their prisoners without a second thought. To demonstrate love towards them exceeded the bounds of all human reason.

But since when was human reason the scale by which Christians measure their actions?

Through God’s grace, Gordon and the others found the strength to return good for evil. One particularly striking example of this occurs when the prisoners administer aid to wounded Japanese soldiers:

They were in a shocking state; I had never seen men filthier. Their uniforms were encrusted with mud, blood, and excrement. Their wounds, sorely enflamed and full of pus, crawled with maggots…

We understood now why the Japanese were so cruel to their prisoners. If they didn’t care a tinker’s damn for their own, why should they care for us?

The wounded men looked at us forlornly as they sat with their heads resting against the carriages waiting fatalistically for death…

Without a word, most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their ration and a rag or two, and, with water canteens in their hands went over to the Japanese train to help them. Our guards tried to prevent us… but we ignored them and knelt by the side of the enemy to give them food and water, to clean and bind up their wounds, to smile and say a kind word. Grateful cries of “Aragatto!” (“Thank you!”) followed us when we left…

We had experienced a moment of grace, there in those blood-stained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey His command, “Thou shalt love”.

Powerful stuff, indeed.

The story behind this book is one which inspired two major motion pictures, the Academy Award-winning The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) and David Cunningham’s more recent adaption To End All Wars (2001). The former, however, is grossly inaccurate and touts the myth that the POWs gleefully assisted in the building of the railway in order to demonstrate British superiority; in reality, the POWs did all they could to sabotage the construction. The latter film remains primarily true to the book, but it’s underscored by a more pacifistic message and the Christian themes are somewhat watered-down.

If you do read this book – and I highly recommend you do – be warned that it contains some graphic subject matter. It is a POW story after all, and Gordon doesn’t pull any punches in describing the horrors endured by the inmates of the prison camps.

In conclusion, the description on the back cover of the book states that To End All Wars is an “example of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds”. But human spirit has nothing to do with it. Rather, Gordon’s story is a testament to the redemptive power of God’s grace in the most horrific of circumstances.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: To End All Wars”

  1. I saw bits of the movie based on this book, but I also remember watching a documentary too. It was a gripping story… although I think the doc. glossed over the religious angle, which is a shame.

    Thanks for the excellent review.

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