On the Railway of Death

I have taught philosophy classes for years at three different universities. I love the process of teaching especially when the class more fully understands some philosophical issue. I have told every class that I have ever taught that I am concerned that they understand the subject at two levels. They must master the material in the textbook. However, to learn completely, they must travel outside the US. That means going to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, or wherever. Then they will be able to more fully understand history, philosophy, and other social issues.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

Case in point: In addition to history, I also teach art history. Pablo Picasso said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso's Guernica

This is his picture of Guernica. At one level, it is a lie. It is not an exact photographic picture of what happened when the Nazis bombed Guernica, which was a small village in northern Spain. However, within Picasso's artistic impression is the truth of the bombing...mass chaos of the first bombing of any city during a war.

Another example of Picasso's "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth" is the William Turner painting, The Fighting Téméraire.

J. M. W. Turner The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken

J. M. W. Turner The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken

The Fighting Téméraire was the greatest ship in the British Royal Navy. However, the navy realized that days of sailing ships were of a time past. They decommissioned the Téméraire and cut her up for scrap. Turner was furious at what the navy did in 1838. However, Turner's painting is of that ship being towed up the Thames to Rotherhithe to be dismantled. Turner's lie was twofold. The sun could not have set where he placed it. Turner place the ship in a funereal setting with the sun setting behind it. He painted that lie for a purpose.

In addition, the ship's masts had been already cut down. A tugboat with belching smoke towed merely a wooden hulk to dry-dock. Turner painted that great ship ready for sailing. That too was a lie to make his point. The sun was setting on the greatest ship of Great Britain.

While I love the paintings of Guernica and The Fighting Téméraire, there is another example of the artistic lie/truth issue. It is about a book and then a movie about a bridge on the Kwai, a river in Thailand. While I was in high school, I saw the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. If you have not seen it, see it. It won the Best Picture and 6-other Academy Awards.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai

It was a great film. However, much of it was a lie. Pierre Boulle, who was a French POW in Thailand during WWII, wrote the book entitled: The Bridge over the River Kwai. Boulle, being French, did not want to portray some of his fellow French POWs as not so great people. Therefore, he wrote the account of the building of the bridges and said that the Allies that were involved with that particular bridge were all British.

Death Railway

Death Railway

The Japanese needed the railroad to supply their war effort in Thailand and Burma. The Allies were able to interdict the naval supplying of the Japanese war effort, which made the Death Railway essential. However, when I was in Thailand, I went to see the bridge during winter break from teaching in 2009-2010. I went to see the lie in a book, The Bridge over the River Kwai that was lied about again in a movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

In addition to the ethnic nationalities of the Allied participants, there were two bridges...another lie. Nevertheless, standing on the metal bridge was one of the greatest moments of my educational life. I knew more about the bridge than 99% of all Americans...I studied, read, taught, and wrote about that bridge. Because of the artistic lies, I learned something and needed to see it. Of all the places that I visited on that trip to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, I learned and appreciated that bridge more than any other place on that trip.

Oops. I forgot a slight detail...and this is not a lie. The day before, I was in Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand. I ate in a restaurant, got food poisoning, and wound up in the emergency room of a Chiang Mai hospital for several hours. I went to the hospital after several hours in our hotel room's bathroom. I spent a good part of 6-hours deathly ill fearing that I would not die! I was that sick.

The next day, we flew to Bangkok and visited the nearby bridge. I stood on that bridge that spans the Kwai. There I was standing on the bridge with a far better comprehension of what the POWs went through. There are not many people still alive that know more about the bridge than me. I understood better the human suffering that the POWs faced while constructing the Death Railway. No text or article about the Bridge on/over the River Kwai could really describe what it felt like to be a POW working of the Railway of Death.

Those POWs had every imaginable disease or sickness in addition to being tortured and beaten by the Japanese. Over 100,000 POWs died building the Death Railway out of about 240,000 POWs that worked on the construction of the railroad between Bangkok and Rangoon. That is nearly half of all the POWs. My suffering lasted 6-hours...their suffering lasted during the construction from June 1942 to the completion in October 1943. That was one of the greatest moments in all my travels.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is also known as Bridge 277.
The middle two sections were bombed February 13, 1945 by the Royal Air Force

All this was due to artistic lies. I learned the truth, because some Frenchman lied in book, The Bridge over the River Kwai and Hollywood lied in a movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. That learning experience occurred 4-years ago. This winter break in 2013-2014, I will be at the terminus of the Death Railway near Rangoon at a town called Moulmein/ Mawlamyine, Burma. The railway totaled 258-miles from just outside of Bangkok, Thailand to Moulmein/Mawlamyine, Burma, which is not far from Rangoon.

What will I see that still remains at Moulmein/Mawlamyine other than some old tracks and parts of one of the old WWII locomotives, I am not certain? Are there any locals who will tell me stories handed down by family members about the Railway of Death? What I do know is that I look forward to that adventure at the terminus of the Railway of Death three months from today...New Year's Day 2014.

This is in an excellent video clip of the history of the Railway of Death:

Other articles about the bridge and the railway:

or How to Make Learning 3-D

Myths and Realities

Or What I Want To Do When I Grow Up


Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.