Unbroken and the Mystery of Enemies Who Become Friends

I drive a Japanese car, a Honda Fit. Unlike some Japanese cars that are built by Japanese companies on American soil, my Fit was actually made in Japan and shipped over. One of my favorite foods is sushi. Another is anything prepared hibachi-style. My family plays video games on a Wii U, a Japanese system, with audio run through a receiver made by Sony, another Japanese company. I love the spare, haunting simplicity of Japanese music and art and the minimalist beauty of its architecture and furniture design. One of my favorite spas is a Japanese gem outside Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. In my lifetime, Japan has always been a country full of innovation, great culture, and solid values that offer an interesting alternative to our Western individualism.

Obviously, had I been born half a century earlier, my perspective on Japan would have been radically different.

A Tale Worth Reading

This realization hit home for me while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding World War II biography called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater. After his plane crashed, he crawled into a life raft with two men from his crew and began drifting west toward Japanese-occupied territory. His story was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever encountered. The book taught me much about the Pacific side of World War II, a subject I sadly haven’t studied in depth even though both my grandfathers served in the Navy during the war. It also gave me a portrait of a will to live that is strong enough to endure unfathomable suffering, despite circumstances that would have made me want to give up many times over. Hillenbrand, also the author of Seabiscuit, spent seven years interviewing POWs, historians, and Zamperini himself, poring over scrapbooks and photographs and military records, and weaving together this mountain of information into one of the most compelling nonfiction books I have ever read.

Japan as a Hostile Nation

The disconnect between the 2013 Japan I know and the 1940s Japan in the book jarred me a bit. Without spoiling the book for you, I will say that Zamperini does eventually encounter some Japanese soldiers, and the results will make you squirm.

How can two countries go from being mortal enemies in the 1940s to being begrudging allies against the Communists the next decade, to say nothing of our strong relationship today and our affinity for Japanese culture and products? Political necessity certainly played a role initially, as the United States wanted all the allies it could get against the Soviet Union and China. Economic considerations also helped, as helping Japan to rebuild presented a large trade opportunity. The passage of time faded painful and fearful memories, and the millions of babies born in the post-war Baby Boom were already separated by time from the horrors of the war. For me, a child of two of those Baby Boomers, the idea of Japan as a hostile nation feels strange and out of place. And finally, as many of the World War II veterans learned after returning home, hatred and bitterness make a terrible burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.

Closing Your Eyes Is Easier, but Opening Them Is Worth It

Studying the horrors of World War II filled me with a variety of emotions: sorrow at the suffering and death of so many people on both sides of the conflict, anger at the people who started it, confusion at how so many people on the Axis side could believe in ideas like racial superiority, wonder at the amazing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and the civilians, and a wave of many types of gratitude.

I am thankful this brutal war ended as soon as it did. I am grateful that my grandfathers and so many others returned safely despite the enormous risks they faced. I am grateful that people, and nations, can change over time, that former enemies can shake hands and sometimes even form friendships, and that forgiveness is possible even in some of the worst situations imaginable.

I Volunteer as Tribute

I finally saw The Hunger Games, the spring 2012 blockbuster about a government-mandated contest that pits 24 randomly selected teenagers against each other in a fight to the death on live TV. Think Survivor with no tribes, more clothing, and knife fights instead of Tribal Councils. Those who know both say the book was better. I’ll probably agree once I read it, but I did greatly enjoy the movie and was actually a bit disappointed when it ended.

One thing that intrigued me about The Hunger Games was the notion of sacrifice. The movie opens with a timid, frail little girl getting chosen as a Tribute to compete in the Games against her will. Only one of the 24 Tributes will survive. Knowing her little sister wouldn’t last five minutes, Katniss (played by the excellent Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss is a skilled archer and has honed her survival skills in brutal, poverty-stricken District 12, becoming her family’s chief provider and emotional core after the death of her father turned her mother into an empty shell. The odds are against her, yet she goes anyway with no hesitation.

I’ve thought over the years about the notion of dying to protect someone. Millions of people risk their lives to protect others in various ways – police officers, firefighters, Secret Service members, and soldiers, to name a few – but risking my life isn’t part of the job description for a flight dispatcher. So probably the only way I’ll ever need to do that is a freak occurrence such as a mass shooting, a car accident, or a burning house. In the unlikely event that I ever find myself in that position, I’ll need to quickly make a profound decision:

Am I willing to die for this person?

As a younger man, say in my teens or early twenties, if I were honest with you and myself, I think I would hesitate for pretty much anybody. Perhaps I would convince myself to take the bullet or jump on the ticking bomb to save a close family member, but perhaps I would chicken out, especially if we weren’t close. I might rationalize it by saying the person would’ve wanted me to save myself instead because I was still young and had my whole life ahead of me, or by saying they wouldn’t die for me, or by saying it was clearly God’s will for them to die and for me to live. But there’s a really good chance I would save myself. I’m not proud of that, but at least I’m honest.

Things are different now.

I’ve been married for nearly ten years to my best friend and partner for life. We have two wonderful little boys. One of my primary missions in life is to ensure that those three people stay safe and have everything they need. An interesting protective instinct has grown within me, an instinct that I believe can override my own instinct for self-preservation if I ever find them in danger. If some guy pulls out a gun in our church or a movie theater, I’ve already programmed myself with Job 1: protect Jenny and the boys at any cost. Don’t think. Don’t rationalize. Don’t hesitate. Just get between them and whatever is threatening them.

I’m no hero. I don’t have spectacular survival skills or great marksmanship or unusual bravery. What I do have is a mission: ensuring the survival of those three people. It’s actually quite liberating to make other people your primary mission, to love them enough that you know you would die for them without hesitation. It took a while to get here, but I think this is one of the most important parts of growing up.

Capitol Punishment

For at least eighty years, the most consistent urge in Washington has been to accumulate power and sanctimoniously proclaim you are doing so for the good of the nation. Sometimes it’s true. More often it’s not. But regardless of whether one is using power for good or ill, the potential for corruption is always present, as I painfully learned. – Jack Abramoff

After a wildly successful career as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, Jack Abramoff spent 3 ½ years in federal prison on charges of fraud and corruption. In 2010 he emerged from prison deeply humbled and penitent, was reunited with his family, and wrote a book about his experience called Capitol Punishment.

Prior to reading Abramoff’s book, I knew little about lobbyists beyond their generally negative connotation. In one of my favorite movies, The American President, a widowed Democratic President (Michael Douglas) hooks up with a liberal lobbyist (Annette Bening) during an election year, which gives his conservative opponent all the mud he could hope to throw during the campaign. Somehow I got the idea that lobbyists were generally liberal, so I was surprised to discover that plenty of lobbyists are conservative as well. One of them was Jack Abramoff, former national president of the College Republicans and fan of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the Tea Party.

Strange as it might sound for a convicted felon, Abramoff is an observant Jew and holds to a strict set of values. In prison, he was offended by many inmates’ porn collections. At one private White House dinner, he quietly refused to eat because the meal wasn’t kosher. He made millions of dollars and donated a huge portion of his income to various charities and individuals in need. However, over the course of his career, he gradually allowed himself to get sucked into the corruption around him, rationalizing questionable or illegal activities as being necessary to win and justified because they helped him donate more money to his charitable causes. It brought to mind the old cliché about boiling frogs. To boil a frog, you don’t throw him into boiling water. You put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book was its window into the lobbying business. Although the potential for corruption is overwhelming, the concept is simple and logical. Organizations hire lobbyists to influence legislators. As Abramoff lays out in Capitol Punishment, let’s say your organization (company, union, church, club) is threatened by a bill that’s floating around in Congress. If passed, this bill would destroy your organization. As the leader of the group, here are your choices:

  1. Cross your fingers, pray, and hope for the best.
  2. Resign yourself to defeat and shut down.
  3. Set up your own grassroots and/or online campaign against the bill via petitions, Facebook/Twitter, blogging, email, and other means.
  4. Move to Washington and “rush about Capitol Hill full time telling anyone who will listen that this bill is a bad idea”.
  5. Hire a lobbyist who knows how Congress works and has the connections you need to stop the bill.

Corruption potential aside, hiring a lobbyist is not that different from hiring a realtor to help you sell your house, a lawyer to represent you in a lawsuit, or an accountant to represent you in an IRS audit. You’re hiring an expert in a field to do something you can’t do yourself. If you need something done in Washington and have deep pockets, lobbying might be the most effective way to achieve your goal.

Unfortunately, despite all the laws that Congress passes to “fight” corruption and limit the influence of lobbyists, legislation is still a dirty, dirty business. Favors get traded for favors, free meals/trips/tickets get traded for votes, Congressional staffers get jobs with lobbying firms and vice versa, and weird riders get attached to unrelated bills because the right person was on the right committee at the right time and played golf with the right lobbyist who knew just the right thing to say to get Senator Mucketymuck onboard. Just like with term limits or campaign finance reform, how can we expect the members of Congress to pass bills that limit their own power, income, benefits, and influence? And with so many paying clients, why should the lobbyists turn down millions in fees simply because their business has a bad reputation? And why should the clients stop doing what it takes to legally fight for their own interests?

Abramoff did a pretty good job with the book itself. He tells a clear, compelling story full of insight, irony, and detail. He does admit several times that many of his actions were wrong, and I believe he’s sincere. As a husband and father, I did feel for the guy as he described spending his last few months with his wife and five children before he left for prison, knowing he would miss most of the next few years of their lives. As some reviewers have noted, the book does have a self-congratulatory tone in some places and a condescending one in others, particularly when he describes his time in prison with other prisoners who clearly “had different work ethics”. But overall I greatly enjoyed the book and learned something from it.

If you’re looking for a book to restore your faith in the integrity of the government, this isn’t the one. But if you want to learn more about how legislation and lobbying really work in Washington and some interesting ideas for reform, or a cautionary tale for how money and power and ambition can corrupt a moral person, Capitol Punishment is worth your time.

The Hidden Winds in Our Sails

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers, he analyzes some of the hidden influences behind some of the world’s most and least successful people. Americans generally credit success to virtues such as hard work and talent. Anyone who is not successful simply doesn’t work hard enough and/or isn’t talented enough to succeed. Gladwell’s book turns these ideas upside down and provides numerous examples of additional factors. Part I focuses on the opportunities, or lack thereof, that play a role in one’s success. Part II addresses some cultural factors that make some groups of people better than others in a given discipline.

Part I really made me think about my own life. Obviously, I’m not rich or famous or powerful. However, although it’s difficult to examine one’s own life objectively, I think my life is pretty successful by American standards. (whether those standards are legit is a much different question) I did well through high school and college, including several awards and scholarships. After graduation, I got a job with a great company and still work there today doing something I really enjoy. Along the way I earned a master’s degree just in case my current job ever fell through. I got married soon after college to a great woman and now have two beautiful little boys. We own a nice home. I make a good living and, barring any unforeseen meltdowns, should have plenty saved up for a comfortable retirement. Most of my major life goals are already complete. My life isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s pretty darn good.

How did all this happen?

It can be tempting to take the credit, to convince myself that *I* am smart, *I* am driven, and *I* work hard, and that those qualities are responsible for my “success”. Gladwell demonstrates quite effectively that the truth isn’t nearly that simple. There are plenty of people who are smarter than me, more driven than me, and/or work harder than me who aren’t pleased with how their lives are going. In my case, I was blessed with a fantastic support network and other advantages that played a huge role in helping me succeed. Here are some of the outside influences and opportunities that Gladwell mentions along with how they applied in my own life:

My Birthdate

No, I’m not talking about astrological hocus-pocus, but my birthdate relative to the school calendar. In Texas, the cutoff date for deciding when to enroll a child in school seems to be September 1. Children born on or soon after that date are generally among the oldest in the class, meaning they’ve had more time for their brains and bodies to mature before starting school. Those kids who seem brightest get special attention and opportunities, whether it’s because they actually are smarter or simply because they are older and more mature. This special attention adds up and multiplies over time as the high achievers get to try enrichment programs and honors/gifted classes.

My birthdate is October 23. I tried to look up or remember the birthdates of the top ten students in my graduating class and found seven of them. Of the seven, five were born in August, October, or November of 1978. One was born in February 1979. One guy broke the mold with a September 1979 birthdate and was simply smart enough to overcome his “deficiency”.

My Family

My family was very supportive of me and helped me in ways I’m still discovering as a 32-year-old. Gladwell discusses two different parenting styles and their impact on their children’s achievement. One style, common among middle- and upper-class families, has been called “concerted cultivation”. The parents play an active role in nurturing their children, encouraging their interests and talents and giving them opportunities to explore them, and teaching them how to shape the world to their desires. Another style, more common among poor families, is called “natural growth”. It’s a more hands-off approach in which the parents provide basic needs but let their children grow in whatever direction they want, or none at all.

My parents took the concerted cultivation approach. They got me interested in reading early on. As I went through phases of interest – dinosaurs one year, sharks the next – my parents found ways to encourage those interests. Sometimes it meant lots of trips to the library. It meant bringing home a typewriter (remember those?) so I could learn to type and then a computer so I could learn how to use it. During my dinosaur phase, they took us to a dinosaur museum in Utah that had real dinosaur bones partially excavated. When I entered the spelling bee, my mom spent hours drilling me. They took me to voice lessons, tennis lessons, taekwondo lessons, college entrance workshops, whatever it took to get me where I wanted to go. My grandfather loved, and still loves, to discuss current events with me even though I was a kid and had very little clue what I was talking about. In sum, my family treated me like I was worthy of investment and expected me to work hard with everything I’d been given. So I did.


Gladwell tells stories about several very successful people such as Bill Gates and The Beatles who happened to be at the perfect place at the perfect time. Whether I’ve ever been in the perfect place at the perfect time is a question far above my pay grade. However, the track of my life has benefitted from certain circumstances. For example, I happened to have an English teacher (Mrs. Picquet) who liked my writing and encouraged me to pursue it. Although I never made a living as a creative writer, I decided to major in writing in college. During my junior year with Mrs. Picquet, partly due to her guidance, I aced a test that made me eligible for a plethora of scholarships. Baylor’s scholarship offer happened to be one of the best in the nation, which led me to do my undergrad there. Baylor happened to have a degree in writing, which I ultimately declared. Southwest Airlines had a college recruiting program that focused on four major universities. One of which was Baylor, and my affiliation with the school helped me get the job. Although I didn’t like the tech writing job too well, it led me to a field I’d never even heard of but now love – flight dispatch. I finally got to join the department at a time when the airline was growing quickly, so I’ve gotten to move up quickly in seniority. Now I’m 32 years old, with a fantastic job that’s extremely secure at one of the best companies in the world. Did I work hard to get here? Definitely. But without Mrs. Picquet, and Baylor’s generous scholarship program, and getting assigned to work on a Dispatch project during my days as a tech writer, my life might look much different right now.

I could go on and dig deeper into some cultural issues and other factors, but you get the point by now. Many people and circumstances have helped me in many ways to get where I am. Ultimately I credit God, who in some mysterious way works in our world to accomplish His purposes and made my life possible. May I be forever grateful for the hidden winds in my sails.