HBO's "The Pacific" Gives Lie to Generational Exceptionalism
After years of treating the Greatest Generation with reverence, years in which late-life oral testimonies have established that generation’s quietly reflective bearing, it’s a jolt to read, say, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, and find the heroes of World War II portrayed so anti-heroically, much the way veterans of our later wars have more typically been portrayed. Near the end of that work, Jones—a Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal veteran—has Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt holed up at his prostitute girlfriend’s Honolulu rental on December 7, 1941, AWOL after shivving a noncommissioned officer. In the midst of a days-long bender financed by his girlfriend, Prewitt has slept through the Japanese attack, waking up only to hear the radio reports, blame those “dirty German bastards,” and resume drinking. Violating curfew, he later attempts to sneak back to his unit and is shot dead by friendly fire....
HBO has now released its highly anticipated miniseries The Pacific, a dramatization of our war with Japan, produced by much the same group that brought out Ryan and Band of Brothers (DreamWorks Studios, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks) and based chiefly on memoirs by two marines, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, who fought and suffered in that conflict. Leckie’s colorful Helmet for My Pillow recounts his training and his deployments to Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, with some ribaldry in Melbourne tossed in, whereas Sledge’s With the Old Breed narrates in perfect measure his descent into the horrors of Peleliu and Okinawa, and stands comparison with the battlefield memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon and Philip Caputo. Sledge’s work alone makes The Pacific better than Band of Brothers, and the story line drawn from it is the best and most meticulous part of The Pacific. (A third story line, involving the Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, is less nuanced than the other two, probably for lack of such thoughtful source material.) Any firsthand account of our fight with Japan—an often hole-by-hole war of extermination—will be intensely raw at times, and Leckie’s and Sledge’s books are no exception, yet the filmmakers, while skillfully tending to such difficult material, have once again taken care to shore up the dignity and pathos of the protagonists, in ways not reflected in the texts themselves, and in ways that should have been judged unnecessary for capturing viewer sympathy....
Certainly one of the reasons why World War II came to be called “the Good War,” and those who fought it “the Greatest Generation,” and why Americans have reserved their utmost sentiment for the European theater of that war, is because the 1945 discovery that we’d helped shut down a genocide redeemed that theater’s carnage—ex post facto—and bestowed upon that campaign a narrative, moral, and even aesthetic appeal that is exceptional for any war. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers epitomize that theater’s irresistible appeal, with their mix of commendably upsetting, technically brilliant combat scenes and more general uplift. Every mangled limb, every shattered facade, every act of conditioned violence stage-whispers “Sacrifice” amid the gently weeping sound track and the faded–Saturday Evening Post color palette, with the overall effect evoking stateliness, esteem, even nostalgia—emotional luxuries that only a comfortable remove can give to the hectic, terrifying nature of combat. All of which takes viewers half out of the moment, despite the kinetic you-are-there cinematography.
DreamWorks and HBO have set themselves a far more difficult task in dealing with the war against Japan, to which Americans, vengeful-minded at the time, were most committed (sentimentally if not in terms of manpower); in which the American casualty rate was three and a half times that in Europe; and which was conducted and concluded in a manner that has provoked enduring ambivalence. Almost entirely missing are the familiarities of the European theater, replaced either by utter foreignness or by a near absence of context beyond the killing....
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