Soundtrack, a very broken Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen,
performed by Jeff Buckley
I’ve never been one for war memorials, I’ve been to one Dawn Service, never felt I wanted to go to Gallipoli. But something in me jumped at the chance to take a trip to the River Kwai, it just seemed right somehow. I didn’t really even think about what it would be, just knew I had to go. It seemed like a good reason for having found myself in Thailand.
You might question my soundtrack recommendation for this post, but it seems so right to me, the rough, broken emptiness of the empty Hallelujah of Cohen crying for meaning. And performed by Jeff Buckley, the spaces between the guitar strings become the spaces in a disillusioned heart full of longing. For me, the sun-baked jungle mountains reached out to sons of a sun-burnt country whose faith was formed in suffering in a sun-parched Judea, until it resonated with a very hot agonised human thirst for meaning. I hope you’ll come to agree that the Hallelujah respects the spirit of those men, who, although broken, dying, tortured in body, mind and soul, even in death, still remained human, remained Australian, and endured.
Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah
Our journey to Hellfire Pass started at the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi where almost 7,000 graves attest to the 15,000 total POW deaths, and signal the some 100,000 Asian civilian deaths, lives that were lost building the infamous Thai-Burma railway between 1942 and 1943. Such a short time for so much death.
Standing among the graves of unknown soldiers I felt moved to sing Amazing Grace. Wandering I saw a crocheted poppy, symbol from last Remembrance Day. A friend of mine made several of those and here I was seeing one in Thailand. How far our simple acts of love and compassion can reach.
People from our group found the graves of some for whom they had come to pay respects. Already moved, we moved on to the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. Bombed and destroyed and rebuilt it doesn’t seem to meet the size of David Niven, but the agony is bigger, somehow in every rail, in every sleeper, every rivet.
I had to go and look at the locomotives, two original rails re-laid, somehow they made it more real.
I love that in South East Asia there seems to be this habit of building temples near sites of suffering and death. As though prayer and stillness could ease the souls, the grief, the pain. I like it at the very least as a sign of respect and reverence.
I’m not even sure now how much I knew about Hellfire Pass before yesterday. We got to the museum, which is so fitting, and the thing that struck me most… a sign that said: there are no artefacts in this museum. The men who suffered and died here brought nothing with them to leave behind.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
Warned about the number of stairs (121) and the “rough” track I headed off down the path to Hellfire Pass.
The rail bed is immediately impressive. Yes it’s been cleared and maintained as a memorial, but the engineer in me says this was a well built railway line. Cut into rock with blood. And the scenery is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful.
I was walking along thinking how impressive it was, how incredible the feat of construction. The roughness of the cliff, cut back in to make the railway line level along the mountain side. It’s rough going even now but what stopped me, brought me up short, were the occasional sleepers still buried in the path. And I remembered again that this was built by men, POWs, by hand. Men brutalised. Feed starvation rations of plain rice, eating insects for protein. Digging through granite at the point of a gun.
And it is impressive. But then I came around a bend and saw the actual Hellfire Pass. And my immediate thought, “It’s an empty tomb.”
It was called Hellfire Pass because the Japanese forced work 24 hours a day. And as the pass was dug, the conditions and the flames of the fires that lit their work by night, were as close to hell on earth as the men could imagine. And it wasn’t imagination, they were living and dying it.
At that point I started to understand how it was that the war in the Pacific came to a place where it could only end in the otherwise unthinkable use of nuclear bombs.
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah
It seemed kind of kitsch, but I felt I had no option but to take my hat off in awe, in horror, and in wonder. Awe and wonder, at the brokenness of hell, at the empty tomb filled with gut wrenching despair and loss and suffering.
And Mary stood alone outside the empty tomb and wept
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
I was humbled in the presence of such great spirit.
After the mist this morning we went to Saiyoknoi Waterfall, where there is no water. But the fallen leaves were being burned and created an eerie, supernatural sense of not being alone in these mountains even today. The tree roots, reaching out like some kind of skeletal being, one still shackled. Still reaching for god and home and meaning. Poppies and flower offerings for peace, on a Japanese loco, in the smoke and the sun and the drought.
But I was still despairing about humanity. How can people have a future in a world of so much reckless hate? How can we have a future if it’s all happening again? Do we even deserve a future? I wandered off alone, unable to cope with other people.
But inevitably it was back in the van and we were off again to another rock cut railway with wooden trestles and I despaired.
The POWs working this section were herded each night into a cave so they couldn’t escape. And in that cave today: Buddha, incense, prayers for peace. I don’t know why, but it made me pause and wonder, maybe, maybe, maybe, is there some hope for humanity?