By Mary Summerbell
Recently, at the Beloit International Film Festival, I saw the film “Forgotten Soldiers“, about the Bataan Death March and the battles preceding it. As a pacifist I usually have no interest in military history, but the hook in it for me is that 99 soldiers from my hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin were involved in this event. I have a friend whose uncle was there. Because of this connection, I’ve always been curious about what happened there.
The movie was a combination of historical footage, re-enactments, and survivors telling their personal stories. Much of the film was old and grainy and gritty. Even the re-enactment scenes had a gray, worn, aged feeling. Some of the background information was more than I wanted to know. And the speakers were difficult to hear at times. But it was gripping, nonetheless. I watched and listened intently.
The two most touching parts for me were the archival scenes of the surrender, and when a survivor spoke of his service with his horse. Some of the troops at Bataan were cavalry units – among the finest, most highly skilled horse soldiers ever. The last cavalry battle in United States history was fought on the Bataan Peninsula.
One cavalryman told of the suffering and death he saw as battle rations were repeatedly reduced. With so many men sick, injured, and starving, and no hope of help coming through the Japanese defenses, a decision was made to slaughter and eat the horses. I couldn’t keep from crying as he told how his horse, being taken to “his final duty,” turned to look at him. “That hurt so bad,” he said. “That hurt so bad.” So sad. And yet, in that sadness, I saw beauty in the loving sacrifice of the man and his horse. I believe that animal sensed his destiny, and went willingly, forgiving of his fate in that last meaningful glance between comrades.
After months of deprivation and relentless combat – surrender. Watching the scenes of the men surrendering, something sank deep inside me. Looking at their grim faces, I wondered what it felt like inside of each of them in those moments. I felt a sick mix of pride and pity. The questions came to me, “What honor was there in this for them? What honor is there in surrender?”
Had they known what would happen, the thousands who would die anyway as a result of cruel, brutal, inhuman treatment as prisoners of war, the orders would likely have been to keep fighting. But they didn’t know. None of us ever know, for sure, what will happen to us until it does. We can’t skip ahead to the last chapter in life, to see how things turn out. We must live life as it comes, not knowing what’s ahead.
I kept thinking of those soldiers, surrendering. I thought of how overpowered they were. With no real chance of victory, facing inevitable defeat, the best they could do was buy time for Allied Forces to get ready for the rest of the war. How many gave their lives, not knowing what difference it made? No soldier who dies in battle knows how the war will end, or how it will affect world history.
Can you imagine yourself in their place? Knowing going into it the hopelessness of the whole situation, yet, against all odds and obstacles, persisting in service until ordered to surrender? Wanting, even then, to continue? Most people will never be in, or live through, such an extreme situation. But we all have struggles and battles in our lives that are very real and important issues for us.
Recently facing unwelcome challenges myself, I felt like giving up. I felt discouraged. Depleted. Defeated. I felt like a failure. In the midst of it, I saw this movie. In spite of my strong inner resistance to identifying with war in any way, I was surprised to find that the soldiers and their horses found a way into my heart and soul. I was inspired by their bravery in battle and their dignity in surrender. In watching the film, and pondering the thoughts and feelings it brought up in me, I learned some very useful things about how to face my personal life issues.
I used to think surrender was the same as quitting, as giving up. Now, nudged into reflection by the images and stories in this movie, I have come to see things differently.
The dictionary definition of surrender is “to hand over, to give into another person’s power or control, especially on demand or under compulsion”. Surrender is not quitting. To quit means to stop and not go back. Surrender is not giving up. To give up means to stop trying. To give in means to yield. It is flexible, and flexibility is strength.
We raise our hands in surrender, a gesture of supplication, as we humbly ask for help. There is an element of elevation in it; we must lift up to hand over. In surrendering we do not change our intention or our principles. We do not change who we are or what we believe in. We only realize we have reached our limits in the moment. We have done all we can for now.
Surrender is an attitude of being and doing our best, then giving the rest to our Higher Power.
Sometimes it seems we are forced – by circumstances, by other people, by the demands of life and our own bodies – to stop and rest and/or rethink our options or course of action. But all these factors are part of being human. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength – and intelligence – to know when to keep going and when to take a break. We need renewal in order to keep going longer and function more efficiently over time.
When something in us says, “No more“, we can choose to push past it. In extreme examples we see just how far beyond normal limits we can go. And don’t we all love heroic effort? But one of the things “Forgotten Soldiers” taught me was that we need to evaluate when heroic effort becomes useless effort, especially when we are deeply invested in extreme situations. It is a personal judgment and a personal choice, what we are willing to sacrifice for what we see as the greater good.
Surrender is a choice. And true power is always in choice. In surrender we come to a moment of judgment, where we must decide whether it is more destructive and negative or more constructive and positive to continue what we are doing. We must weigh potential gain against possible loss, or damage, and decide what best serves our purpose.
The honor in surrender is in giving your self over to what you most value in the moment. In making a conscious, ongoing choice to be true to your self in the best and worst of circumstances, regardless of results.
Victory is in commitment, not in outcome or history’s opinion of our wisdom or foolishness.
All I can do is be the truth of who I am. That’s all anyone can ever do. Moment by moment, as we go, with ever-shifting consciousness along the way. Without expectation of outcome. We can never know what our influence is, how we will impact another, the full measure, the final effect of being who we are. None of us can ever know the ultimate outcome of our life.
The men in the movie had no way of knowing a movie would be made about them. That their story would be told. Those soldiers had no idea they would reach beyond their graves to touch me the way they did, inspiring me to surrender to my challenges as they surrendered to theirs.