Friday, November 7, 2008

A Perkily Skeptical Review Of Two Books

The Great Escape is one of my favorite movies.

There is something about escape stories that fires me up. Escape stories throw into sharp relief what human beings are capable of when we really put everything we've got into attaining a goal! Tales about prisoners of war or politics, armed only with their cunning and resourcefulness, who slipped their bonds and made their run for freedom inspire me to do anything I want in my life! If these people, with so little, managed to achieve the seemingly-impossible-- escape to freedom!-- then cleaning my damn house is just ridiculously small potatoes. Heck, it doesn't even RATE potatoes! More like... small peas! Small BITES of peas taken by an overly-full ant who didn't want to appear rude to his hosts.

Often when I'm working on any tough project that is giving me fits, I'll pop in The Great Escape DVD, and even just listening to that music lifts my burden and helps me to focus on human achievement! "They did that!!! I can do this," I will think to myself.

I love that movie so much, I just HAD to read the book on which it was based-- The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill, who never escaped, yet who worked side by side with those who did, and who dedicated the book "To the Fifty," the men who were shot by the SS after their recapture. I have read this book again and again, and each time I am struck with how closely the film version captures the events of the book, and though the characters of the film are fictionalized amalgams, their exploits and quirks are easily recognizeable in the original personalities inside that prison camp, Stalag Luft III. It is astounding, riveting, and ultra-awesome... because they DID this. They perpetrated the Great Escape!

There are piles and piles of hard evidence to attest the veracity of the book-- the prisoners who were involved in the X Organization and lived to corroborrate and assist Brickhill's account, records of the Luftwaffe and photographs taken by the ferrets who were camera-bugs, the air pump they used in the tunnel, and more. And BOY did Brickhill do his homework! Not content with his own memory of the events, he accessed everyone he could for information, photographs, sketches, and more:
"Of my own part in the show-- little enough to say. I am a sort of Boswell, not a hero.... Since the war I've twice been back to Germany to dig deeper into the story, being lucky enough once to get into the forbidden Russian zone and fossick once more around the scene of the crime. After the hangman's job was done in 1948 I went through several thousand pages of unpublished reports, getting all the German side of the affair as well as a lot more of our own. And then I searched out the important survivors and filled in the few gaps left."
The man's a natural journalist! The work he put into getting the story right makes me feel confident in his account.

Something about people who escape on foot really appeals to me as well. If worse came to worst, if all the fuel ran out and the roads were closed by hostile forces, etc., we can use the power of our own limbs to seek freedom! Going overland means you have to have the ability to live off the land-- you need the know-how to obtain food, water, and shelter on your journey. So, when I saw in the bookstore The Long Walk, I was overjoyed! Here was an escape story where the escapees walked ALL THE WAY THROUGH SIBERIA, down to INDIA!!!

But alas... something was wrong.

Though the subtitle is, "The True Story Of A Trek To Freedom," several things rang discordant. First of all, the author Slavomir Rawicz was assisted in telling his tale by a reporter named Ronald Downing, of the London Daily Mail. This gave me pause. The Daily Mail has a bad rep for being a wellspring of uncritical thinking, woo-woo-peddling, fearmongering, anything-to-sell-papers tabloid. The foreword by Downing mentions that the Daily Mail was about to launch an expedition into the Himalayas to see if they could find a yeti, and they were given a tip that this guy Rawicz had seen creatures in Tibet that seemed to match the description of yeti. This gave me about six pauses.

Nonetheless, I bought the book and read it through, thinking there might be some truth in it to be teased out.

Sure enough, I was enthralled by the story of the escape. Enthralled by all the walking and foraging. Enthralled with their meeting various tribespeople and receiving life-giving hospitality from the Mongolians.

But the part where they tried to cross the Gobi with no water? That really made me think, "They came that far, only to be that STUPID not to turn back after a day of desert conditions and no water to be found anywhere? What even semi-rational human would do that?" Then I REALLY felt my credulity was being stomped upon, adding injury to the insult dealt to my intelligence, when the party CROSSED THE HIMALAYAS. With no guide and only the vaguest idea where to go. Dressed in rags. With no food.

Once upon a time, I tried to hike part of the Appalachian Trail having packed insufficient carbohydrates, and IT SUCKED. I, sweet little me all full of love and warmth for my fellow living creatures, was actively contemplating ASSAULTING another hiker for his ramen noodles after only FOUR DAYS. I shit you not. If I had thought I could take him, THOSE NOODLES WOULD HAVE BEEN MINE!!! I know full well that one of the chief tenets of skepticism is that just because YOU can't imagine a way to do it does not mean that it cannot be done. Yet at this point, I fear I must call bullshit on the Tibet adventure as described in the book. (And that's not even COUNTING the alleged yeti sighting.) Anyway, why would they DO that when Lhasa was RIGHT THERE, and everybody they met told them how welcoming it was and how well they would be treated, how there was food there, etc.? If you are starving in the wilderness, why would you not elect to stop at Lhasa for a while rather than immediately pushing on into crossing the highest mountain range on earth's surface???

Some other things just rang false to my eye-ears, too-- like encountering the 17-year-old girl and all these men immediately felt an upwelling of big-brotherly-protectiveness for her, rather than "OMG A GIRL and we've been sex-starved prisoners for a really long time, my isn't this awkward!!!" We would all like to think that soldiers would be gentlemen in such a situation, and the book gives us exactly what we want to hear. That, to me, struck me as playing to the audience rather than reporting the truth.

I tend to be an honest sort, and I tend to think other people are telling me the truth unless something really leaps out as a red flag. This is why a skeptical mind is extremely important to people like me, whose picture is next to the word "gullible" in the dictionary (go look!). Thus it's best to rely on evidence when one is evaluating a claim. So, let's look at the evidence supporting The Long Walk: The True Story Of A Trek To Freedom.

Well, a quick Google search reveals a nice Wikipedia article on Slavomir Rawicz which indicates the BBC found some evidence. The evidence, turned up in 2006, suggests that Rawicz was in the gulag until 1942 and then released "apparently as part of a general amnesty for Polish soldiers. These are backed up by his amnesty document and a permit to travel to rejoin the Polish Army." Unlike Brickhill, Rawicz never tried to contact the men who he claims survived the trek with him, though it would seem only natural to do so, and likewise the Cantonment in India where he claimed to have gone has no record of his being there. Likewise, Rawicz makes no mention of the telephone line running through the Gobi at the time of his crossing, which his party should have been able to see, according to one criticism in the Wikipedia article.

Many commenters on the BBC story remark how, though Rawicz never made the journey, many prisoners of the gulag certainly did make harrowing treks across Asia, taking years to reach their destinations! Rawicz's children make the point that their father wanted to lay down this amazing tale in order to commemorate "all those whose graves bore no cross, for whom no tears could be shed, for whom no bell was tolled and for those who do not live (or die) in freedom." This is admirable, and for this I give Rawicz props. He has, in fact, told a gripping tale which gives anyone who reads it immediate sympathy for the gulag survivors, and especially those escaped or released but left to make their own way home overland.

However, I really wish the publisher would label this book, say, "a fictionalized amalgam of the heroic journeys made by gulag victims unnumbered and unsung" instead of "True Story." The word "fictionalized" here is important to me, because the author probably did indeed hear tales from other soldiers who had themselves walked through Asia to freedom, but he spins a tale whose particulars really do seem to be impossible. In my opinion, this important omission lessens the impact of an otherwise gripping narrative, and the resulting memorial to those who made these harrowing treks in real life is diminished in the process.

To me, the most heart-touching part of "The Long Walk" is Rawicz's foreword, in which he speaks candidly about his experiences:
"I, like so many, lived for many years with awful nightmares, reliving the past, my mind invaded as if by a tape of endless, awesome experiences. I grew bitter, silent, and even more restless than the restlessness of my youth. I could not sleep or relax, and sometimes I wandered unconsciously for days from my home for no reason, later to reemerge into reality once more.... I hope The Long Walk will remain as a memorial to all those who live and die for freedom, and for all those who for many reasons could not speak for themselves. I had to tell my story as a warning to the living, and as a moral judgment for the greater good."
This much, we know is true.


The Chemist said...

Pssst! Let me in! Orac sent me!

I too LOVE the book by Paul Brickhill enough to have caused my copy extensive damage after multiple readings. Of course someone I know (alas! a family member) asked me what it was about once. I told him it was about prisoners in Germany. He then asked whether it was about the Holocaust. I said no, it was about captured soldiers. He expressed relief that I wasn't reading "a pack of lies."

I felt that was sufficiently skepticism related to bring it up. Some people never learn.

Perky Skeptic said...

Gah! Terrible to find out a family member's a Holocaust denier!

But also, YAY, another Brickhill fan! Nice to meet you. :) I do The Great Escape Happy Dance now! :)