[15 March 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
All of us knew we had to do the whole war.
—Bruce C. McKenna
I don’t recall that anyone really comprehended what was happening outside our training routine. Maybe it was the naïve optimism of youth, but the awesome reality that we were training to be cannon fodder in a global war that had already snuffed out millions of lives never seemed to occur to us. The fact that our lives might end violently or that we might be crippled while we were still boys didn’t seem to register.
—E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Presidio Press 1981)
“The Pacific will be our theater of war,” declares Lieutenant General Chesty Puller (William Sadler). His men, the First Marine Division headed out at the start of 1942, will not be fighting Hitler or Mussolini. They will instead be sent to fight on “tiny specks of turf that we have never heard of.” Still, the Marines nod, believing in their notional mission, that they must be “what ‘Japs’ are not expecting.”
At the start of The Pacific, premiering 14 March on HBO, this mission is premised on righteous revenge for the “day that will live in infamy.” For a moment, the “theater” appears apt for the ensuing drama, but even as Franklin Roosevelt’s voice crackles over the expected black-and-white archival footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the series makes clear as well that the Marines sent to yank “Japs out of their shit-filled holes by their yellow balls” were not ready. “We were never told that we were going into combat,” recalls one survivor (each episode is introduced by a brief set of interviews with veterans). “The main thing was to stay alive.”
The series proceeds to demonstrate what happens when men go to war ill-prepared. In part the chaos is a function of understandably disjointed responses to what narrator and executive producer Tom Hanks calls “America’s greatest military disaster.” But it also has to do with propaganda, lack of education, and imperfect planning. In a scene titled, grandly and ironically, “USA, December 1941,” curly-headed Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) emerges from a church into the snowy dusk. Here he meets a pretty neighbor, Vera, who explains, “I thought I was going shopping. Then I saw St. Mary’s and I thought I’d pray instead.” As Bob conceives it, his story at this point seems almost as random: “I joined the Marines,” he says, “I thought I’d do my bit.” As she heads inside, he shyly offers to writer to her. “All right,” she smiles, not exactly encouraging him.
Bob can have no notion of what his “bit” will be. Neither can he imagine how the plans to take certain “tiny specks” will be designed or executed. Still, this brief encounter sets up a narrative framework for the mini-series, in the sense of a relationship (the real life Bob, a private whose memoir serves as one source, married Vera when he came home) as well as a structure for the 10-part miniseries. Bob’s letters to Vera provide basic information (he’s stationed on Pavuvu, he’s going to Peleliu) and poetic ruminations on the war’s horrors (“Without a sign, his sword the brave man draws, and asks no omen but his country’s cause”). Bob’s earnest sensitivity helps The Pacific to show these horrors while maintaining some bit of moral distance, a device that is both repeated and refracted in the stories of two other Marines, Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), who returns home after earning a Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal to be used on a War Bonds drive (see also: Flags of Our Fathers), and Pfc. Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello, the lanky little kid in Jurassic Park), who cries when his father tells him he cannot enlist because he has a heart murmur.
Their varying experiences raise questions about the romance typically associated with the war and especially, the Greatest Generation. That’s not to say the series debunks that greatness, only that it contextualizes and interprets it. John conducts himself mostly admirably and reaps what seem like rewards stateside, introduced as a hero as he tours with celebrities and essentially promotes an enterprise about which he has deep doubts. Bob’s experience is more emphatically hands-on, as he stays in theater for months on end.
As his ship first heads toward the Solomon Islands, Bob rejects outright a comrade’s description of the coming fight as a “real turkey shoot” (“When you see the Japs, kill ‘em all”), insisting that it will be “more complicated than that.” When they land on the beach, the Marines are surprised to see their predecessors smoking cigarettes, bored and restless. The first night reveals that lack of training has consequences, when one of their own is killed by friendly fire.
Shocked and dismayed, the men redouble their determination to get even with the villains who have dragged them out to what Bob describes as a “garden of Eden.” Their first battle, a long night of shooting wildly into the dark, produces a beach full of bloody corpses, much like a “turkey shoot.” Bob, however, comes to a grim assessment when his fellows abuse a Japanese survivor, shooting at his arms and shoulders and laughing as he roars in anguish and stumbles into the surf. Bob’s solution is brutal and efficient, and his letter to Vera, read out as he burns a family photo belonging to a dead enemy, is pointed: “The jungle holds both beauty and terror in its depths, the most terrible of which is man. We have met the enemy and have learned nothing more about him. I have, however, learned something about myself. “
That lesson comes to bear during a difficult conversation with Eugene, who arrives at the base camp expecting great opportunity for revenge and a sort of masculine education. Though Eugene previously laments his misfortune in letters to a buddy on the frontlines (“The truth is, you’re the lucky one, Sid. You’ll never have that nagging thought that you let the family, friends, and the country down”), he is eventually medically cleared to go. He’s thrilled to make it to the land of manly men at last, even if the first few enlisted men he meets are cynical bullies.
At this point the series uses Eugene’s rather profound (and maybe calculatedly Southern) innocence as a lens to magnify the monstrosity he experiences on the battlefield. When he arrives at Pavuvu, he doesn’t smoke cigarettes or curse, and asserts his Christian faith proudly. Bob engages him in a mini-debate, wondering at God’s many creations. If God created everything, that includes “the yellow slants that tried to kill me on many occasions,” Bob presses. Eugene has something like an answer, “What we do is up to us.”
But Bob has a problem with “free will.” This means, he says, “The whole game is fixed by the will of gramps on his throne, while we’re down here for what? His entertainment? That’s makes us chumps or God’s a sadist. Either way, I got no use for him.” When Eugene asks what his new friend does believe in, Bob smirks. “I believe in ammunition.”
It’s a perennial question, how war fits into any broad moral scheme or whether it can be justified under specific circumstance. Even The Pacific insists on “harsh realities,” watching Eugene watch his fellow private Snafu (Remi Malek, who is excellent) dig the gold teeth out of one enemy or toss pebbles into the blown-out skull of another, it leaves those enemies looking overwhelmingly grotesque, unfathomable others who baffle, enrage, and frighten the Marines. This is, of course, the perspective of the young men who are dumped unmercifully onto “tiny specks of turf” that might or might not end up meaningful by war’s end. Their subsequent despair or revulsion, their anger or frustration, show them to be decent men rather than faceless foes (see: the Japanese, save, perhaps, the one who carried the photo). In its insistence on the chaos of battles and the confusion of downtime, the series also offers another “harsh reality,” that these decent men are exploited by their faceless government, again and again. If this story is not explicit in the bloody surface of The Pacific, it is a persistent, distressing undercurrent.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/122301-the-pacific/