Sunday, May 02, 2010

I need to say something about HBO's "The Pacific," but I'm not sure what


by Ken

I keep thinking I ought to write something about the Steven Spielberg- and Tom Hanks-produced HBO series The Pacific, especially as tonight, finally, we reach a name that everybody knows, Iwo Jima. (Air time is Sundays at 9pm ET/PT, with innumerable repeats, but as always, check your local listings.)

This follows two episodes devoted to a battle that I suspect hardly any Americans have heard of: the incredibly bloody fight for the inconsequential island of Peleliu, in the Palau Islands, whose airstrip was seen as a gateway to the Philippines. Possession of that airstrip, the strategic thinking went, was "do or die" for any chance to retake the Philippines from Japanese control. But unfortunately U.S. intelligence had no inkling of the elaborate network of heavily fortified (and manned) caves and tunnels in the hills above the airstrip, and so the marines dispatched to take the island literally had no idea what they were going up against. The casualty figures are numbing. According to the Stamford Historical Society's account of the Battle of Peleliu (Sept. 15-Nov. 25, 1944):
The Americans suffered 2336 killed and 8450 wounded. The Japanese suffered 10,695 killed and 202 captured, only 19 of which were Japanese, the others were Korean and Okinawan laborers. The assault on Peleliu resulted in the highest casualty rate for any amphibious assault in the entire Pacific campaign.

For those who haven't been watching, the way The Pacific works, the opening minutes are devoted to some quick background on the historical moment, including pieces of interviews with marines who survived the action in question. I love this stuff. In the case of Peleliu, for example, it's impossible to describe the force of the quiet horror of those marines' recollection of an action expected to take two or three days which stretched to more than ten weeks. Of course the survivors remember the horrible losses. But there's something about the way they recall the absence of water, pointing out that the human body can go surprisingly long without food, but not that long at all without water.

You see the Palau Islands in the Central Pacific Area, north of New Guinea and east of the Philippine island of Mindanao? (You can click on the map to enlarge it.) That's the group that includes tiny, inconsequential Peleliu, the site of unimaginable carnage in the battle for its airstrip, which then went unused -- see update below.

I never heard of Peleliu, so I can say that The Pacific serves a useful educational function. (UPDATE: At the start of Part 8, we learn that Peleliu, once captured, was never used for any military purpose. Even in the planning for an invasion of Japan, General MacArthur decided on a different plan. Which perhaps explains why most of us have never heard of Peleliu. The battle might as well never have happened, except for the fact of the very real losses incurred there.)

Still, the series is able to present only such a tiny, selective portion of the War in the Pacific, and it does so with that always-nervous-making mix of fact and fiction in the dramatized depictions that fill out each episode, so that I never know quite where we're supposed to be going here. That war is hell really shouldn't be news to anyone, should it? And yet Spielberg seems to have gotten away with having nothing more on his mind than that in the making of Saving Private Ryan. But then, I'm the only person I know who thought that a decidedly dubious and largely un-educational undertaking.

Still, as I've gotten to know the characters (I think the producers of series like this forget how long it takes viewers to sort out the individual characters), I've found myself more compelled by the drama -- without enough personal knowledge of the events to know how well or badly I'm being informed historically. The shows have a feeling of authenticity, but that doesn't count for much.

I was surprised, rummaging around the show's page on the HBO website, to find that Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, two of our central characters, are real persons, who've written real books, Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawaand Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, about the real war they observed and participated in, on which -- I now discover! -- the series is at least partly based. Maybe all of the characters are based on real people. As with so many other things about the show, I (and I suspect most viewers) just don't know.

When I mentioned to Howie that in tonight's episode (Part 8, as I recall) we get to Iwo Jima, he said he thought I was going to say that tonight we find out who won the war. And again, I can't tell you what function the series has set out to fill. I certainly have the feeling that, while there is a small subset of Americans who remain fascinated by World War II, by and large the war has receded into dim memory, and I guess I think this is a bad thing, though I can't tell you why exactly, beyond the ways in which ignorance of the past is a bad thing generally, and equips us poorly to make decisions about the present and future.

Howie also asked if the show has devoted much attention to the Japanese perspective, an issue he's had with a book on Afghanistan he's reading, Seth Jones's In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan,which devotes careful attention to the life background of many of the American servicepeople it chronicles while treating all the Afghans as interchangeable anonymities. I had to think. On the whole the portrayal of the Japanese in The Pacific has seemed to me limited to the incarnation-of-evil image in the minds of most of the American fighting forces. But then, is there any other way to fight a war? If you're sending soldiers, or sailors or marines, into battle, can they fight with any attitude other than, "It's them or us"? Is there a "nuanced" way to fight a war? (One of the hellish things about war is that it reduces us to beings who think about geopolitical issues and other people in such cartoonish terms.)

Of course nuance is desperately important when it comes to the people who get us into wars and then strategize them. I think an awful lot of us have long had the feeling that we got into both Iraq and Afghanistan without even the most rudimentary knowledge of what was at stake in either region or how it's seen from local perspectives, and this is a singularly terrible way to run a war machine. In addition, in prosecuting any war it's certainly important for all concerned to have given detailed thought to what is and what isn't permissible behavior.

Those issues don't come up in The Pacific, and I'm not sure they should. I know that I will come away from the series knowing more about the War in the Pacific than I knew. What I'm not so sure about is how much of what I need to know about the Pacific war I'll come away knowing. I'm really curious to know what other people's experience of the series has been -- including those who chose to give it a pass, as I almost did.

Labels: ,


At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Pierre Tristam said...

This was my take on "The Pacific"--not the most complementary of takes, but I had issues with the sequelization of a genre that should have been a one-off sort of thing.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for sharing that, Pierre. You may well be right that all the show's about is war worship. After all, I can't tell you what the damned thing is about.

But I think there's something going on there. And I notice that you wrote after seeing only one episode. Very likely seeing more wouldn't have made any difference, but I know that my response has certainly evolved -- though again I can't really say from what to what -- over the course of the first seven parts.

Again, thanks for sharing your perspective. It's certainly well argued.


At 7:43 PM, Blogger lawguy said...

I haven't seen the series, but as for Saving Private Ryan it is nothing but a collection of WWII movie cliches from not particularly original WWII movies from the 50s. If I work at it Ican tell you which movies they first appeared in having grown up during that period.

At 11:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone's mileage may vary but as you said, Ken, you were "surprised to learn" that both Leckie and Sledge were the real thing. Their memoirs are the closest thing we have to a front line infantryman's view of the war in that theater. It is important historical data and just about everything portrayed in the series is based on eyewitness accounts. The point of taking the airfield was to deny it to the Japanese and give the new B29s a base at which to land and refuel on long range bombing missions to Japan and their other occupied territories. Nimitz never canceled the operation but in hindsight, it may have been best to bypass the Palau Islands altogether. Hindsight is always 20/20, especially in war.

I don't find it to be war pr0n or worship. Cliches? Who knows? Band of Brothers was an excellent series and quite realistic. I was surprised by Basilone's "Slap a Jap" lecture to the grunts at Pendleton. I don't know how historically accurate that is but his scolding them on their underestimating the fighting spirit and skill of the Japanese soldier as opposed to the Jingoistic and racist cartoon characters made up by "guys on Madison Ave to sell soap" had the ring of truth to it. Both sides hated each other but also came to respect each other. Odd, isn't it?

I think you should watch it again. you'll see things you missed the first time. War worship? I don't think so. And to a subject like this justice, serialization is the only way.

At 1:47 AM, Anonymous Craig said...

I'm familiar with the Pacific War..i'm 65 and my father served with the US Navy during this war. I heard his stories of Tarawa, the kamikazes off Okinawa and the Typhoon at the end of the war.

My Seventh Grade English teacher was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.

I've read Sledge and Leckie as well as the fiction of James Jones and Norman Mailer, etc on this theater.

I served in the US Army during the Vietnam War and hold a Master's degee in History.

I grew up on a diet of recycled World War Two movies and from my experience and perspective this series does not glorify war...indeed it does just the opposite. I am retired in Thailand and my Thai wife said, " I usually do not like movies about war; but, I want to get the DVD of this, in Thai, to show my children about how terrible war is." She is, as am I, attached to the humanity of the characters.

If I have a criticism on this series it is that it was a bit difficult to keep the characters sorted out in the beginning....The interviews with the real person help in this matter.

My late father, who was opposed to racism and injustice, kept a dislike of the "Japs" well toward the end of his life. He would comment as we watched "War at Ses" and other documentaries on the war on the disregard for human life, he felt, the Japanese had...based on the mistreatment of prisoners, suicides and refusal to surrender.

I went to the link provided by Pierre...the writer there says.."When a young man can’t join the service because of his health, he’s crushed and cries the tears of an Achilles denied."

My uncle "Bus" Eliot found himself not being drafted as all around him were going off in uniform. He went to the draft board and they found his form had been misfiled. He went into the Army Air Corp and died over the skies of Germany. "..He's crushed and cries the tears of an Achilles denied." My response to the blogger is to stop attempting to write clever phrases and study his history.

I agree with JTQuirk's comments on Band of Brothers and this series.

The show is broadcast on Saturdays evenings and repeated three times during the week...I watch all the repeats and find new stuff to help in understanding the series.

Nothing is perfect...this series isn't. It does tell a terrible brutal story...and with some humanity.

At 6:45 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I'm really enjoying the discussion, and am deeply grateful for the time and thought you've all invested.

Best to all,

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Mike in SLO said...

I've been disappointed in "the Pacific". I loved "Flags of out Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" and thought that perhaps "The Pacific" would be along a similar vein. I was wrong. "The Pacific" is very melodramatic with some historical perspective plopped at the beginning, they we launch into the personal story of the soldier in that night's episode. In last night's installment you could see the soldiers death a mile away. Really a waste of a good idea, IMO.

At 7:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people just can't tell the difference between fact and fiction.

And Ken, Howie should know that Sinclair lewis quote is a misattribution. Sinclair Lewis never said this:

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." -- Sinclair Lewis

Wikiquote confirms this.

It is certainly something you could infer from the novel but it appears nowhere in the novel.

This is the best research I've found online about the origin of that misattribution.

It's a hobby of mine.

At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Craig.

I agree with your comment, obviously.

And Ken and Howie, It is a great quote, just not something Sinclair Lewis said in so many words. Most people are happy to accept it as such but it probably isn't. No need to not use it but I'm always a stickler for historical accuracy when possible. :-)

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Really trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked

marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy

sesli sohbetsesli chatkamerali sohbetseslisohbetsesli sohbetsesli sohbetsesli sohbet

At 7:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

goofy series. want a great story, read william manchesters memoirs. too much graphic sex, F bombs. no way you could watch this with your teen unless you wanted to advertise adultery and fornication. this could have been great but the liberal hollywierds messed it up as usual. the japanese lived in caves on some of these islands and celebrated cannibalism. these hollywood types should be made to live in caves to keep them away from our culture.they are the cannibals.

At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Pacific is a brilliant high dollar interpretation of the American experience against the Japanese in World War 2. Based mainly on 2 personal memoirs it chronicles the war in the Pacific from the viewpoint of Marines fighting from island to island, from Guadacanal to Okinawa. I would encourage everyone to watch this series with an open mind and a strong stomach. The war in the Pacific was brutal and this show did an amazing job of showing the viewer this in a humunistic way. People need to learn about the horrible conflicts that have happened- why they happened and the cost inflicted. Our forebearers paid a great price and understanding and preventing similar camalities is our responsibility.


Post a Comment

<< Home