Ethics Hero Emeritus: Eric Lomax, 1919-2012

Eric Lomax was a hero of forgiveness.

Eric Lomax, his book, the Bridge on the River Kwai,, and his friend, the man who tortured him.

In 1942, Eric Lomax, was a 19 year old  member of the British Royal Corps of Signals stationed in Singapore when he joined thousands of British soldiers in surrendering to the Japanese. It was 1942. He was one of those shipped to Thailand and became one of the slaves laboring to build the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. The building of the railroad and the brutal treatment of the English prisoners by their Japanese captors  formed the plot of the classic 1957 David Lean film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,”

After Lomax was discovered to have built a radio receiver from spare parts, he was mercilessly tortured and interrogated by his captors.  After his release, fantasies about murdering his main torturer, a man named Nagase Takashi, obsessed him. Lomax spent the early years of his retirement in the 1980s looking for Takashi, and eventually learned that he had become an interpreter for the Allies after the war. In 1992, he stumbled across an article profiling Nagase and noting that he was haunted by guilt over his mistreatment of one British soldier. That soldier, Lomax realized, had been him. He arranged to meet the man who tortured him, and whom he had spent the rest of his life dreaming of murdering.

Torturer and victim met in 1993, on the infamous bridge Lomax had been forced to help construct (and which was not blown up, the film ending notwithstanding). He described the scene on the website of the Forgiveness Project, a British group brings together such unlikely duos turned into enemies by war. “When we met, Nagase greeted me with a formal bow,” Lomax wrote. “I took his hand and said in Japanese, ‘Good morning, Mr. Nagase, how are you?’ He was trembling and crying, and he said over and over again: ‘I am so sorry, so very sorry.’  I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around. In the days that followed we spent a lot of time together, talking and laughing.We promised to keep in touch and have remained friends ever since.”

Amazing.

A best-selling book Lomax wrote about his experience, “The Railroad Man has been made into a film that will be released later this year. He was a war hero who not only survived the hell of torture and slavery, but also overcame hate and bitterness, not only enriching his own life, but that of the enemy who harmed him as well.  It is difficult to imagine a more impressive act of kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness.

Eric Lomax died this week at the age of 93.  “I haven’t forgiven Japan as a nation,” he told The New York Times, “but I’ve forgiven one man, because he’s experienced such great personal regret.” That’s all right: that one act of forgiveness was plenty, and makes Eric Lomax a role model to remember for one of the most difficult ethical virtues of all.

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Facts and Graphic: New York Times

7 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Eric Lomax, 1919-2012

  1. Sad and uplifting, however Lomax’s life and experience are hardly the template for others unfortunately. Most tormented peoples go on to torment others. The cycle repeats; there are countless examples daily.

  2. I saw this story on the web a couple days ago and ordered a few of the books written about these two men. My principal interest is in learning how Nagase made the transitions from being a civilian to becoming an enthusiastic torturer and then finally the transition to a level of self-awareness that created this repentance that he now displays. This must be rare.

    • Maybe not. Read Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect.” Good people are very vulnerable—more than any of us think—to being co-opted, along with our core values, into the warped values of cultures we are immersed in. And we can come back from that experience too.

      • For those unfamiliar with it, Zimbardo ran the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment where volunteers were randomly separated into inmates and guards. The treatment of the “inmates” by the “guards” was so atrocious that the study was cut from 2 weeks to 6 days.

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