As I write, tens of thousands of American soldiers are scraping out a life of tedium, punctuated by moments of terrible violence, in a rocky landscape of scorched earth far to the east. They seek an enemy that slips effortlessly through the terrain, is incomprehensible in its motives, and which attacked us first. Sound familiar?
With this in mind, it is difficult not to question Steven Spielberg’s motives in producing his latest and most unabashedly patriotic war flick, The Pacific, HBO’s 10-hour miniseries debuting March 14, 2010, in which men who fight are lauded, and men who don’t are disappointments. As a male Navy nurse wipes a bloody nose, he laments to a veteran of Guadalcanal that, “This is as bad as my war gets.” Longing to join his best friend, PFC Sidney Phillips, who enlisted while the wreckage of Pearl Harbor was still smoking, Eugene Sledge of Mobile, Alabama writes, “You’ll never have that nagging thought that you let your family, your friends, and your country down.” Perhaps wisely, Spielberg does not attempt to draw parallels between World War II and the present or to consider the justness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His epic depiction of three marines’ war experiences is an unapologetic panegyric to the ordinary citizen soldier of the Greatest Generation; and judged solely on that scale it is wildly successful.
Hardly an all-encompassing depiction of the Pacific Theater, the series leaves out the Navy, pokes fun of the Army, sidesteps the Atom bomb, and altogether ignores racial issues in the military (all the naval cooks are white, and so are all the marines). Departing from the company-wide portrait used in Band of Brothers, the pre-9/11 product of Spielberg’s collaboration with co-producer Tom Hanks, The Pacific is actually narrower in scope, focusing on three marines, PFC Robert Leckie, Pvt. Eugene Sledge, and Sgt. John Basilone. All three were real persons. Leckie and Sledge later wrote their own wartime memoirs, Helmet for my Pillow and With the Old Breed respectively, the latter of which was heavily quoted in Ken Burn’s 2007 documentary The War.
The smaller cast makes for greater characterization, following each man from his initial call to war to the end and detailing his friendships, familial relationships, and even the intimate aspects of his love life that we have come to expect from premium cable offerings. Through the eyes of Leckie, a thoughtful scholar, Sledge, a sensitive doctor’s son, and Basilone, a pragmatic leader, we glimpse the fighting from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, taking occasional detours for a shore-leave at Melbourne, Australia, a stint in a Pacific mental ward, a trip to the Home Front, and several boot camp sessions at Camp Pendleton. Along the way, each man evolves from a green recruit (or a trained, but untested, marine in Basilone’s case) to a disillusioned veteran, struggling not only to survive, but to maintain his will to do it.
Battles are filmed in the same gritty, disorienting detail as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, although the writers and filmmakers are quick to contrast the street fighting in France and Germany, with the total war among the ominous jungles and hellish volcanic landscapes of the Pacific islands. In one night scene that channels earlier Vietnam War films, the marines are holed up during a downpour, scrutinizing the bamboo fronds just yards in front of them, where they know the Japanese are hiding, while helpless to guess from whence the attack will come. Rewarded after battle with maggoty rice and a shiftless respite on an island where it never ceases to rain, the marines are ejected again into nightmare frays among the steaming ash and rocks of Peleliu and against the intricate fortifications on Iwo Jima, last seen in Clint Eastwood’s groundbreaking 2006 film Letters from Iwo Jima.
In a later episode, a veteran of the Normandy invasion hammers home the thesis of the miniseries, ruefully acknowledging, “At least I got some liberties in London or Paris. You Gyrenes? You got nothin’ but jungle rot and malaria.”
The most resonant portion of the miniseries is the homecoming, the painful and evasive thaw into normalcy that even the most well-adjusted survivor never completely achieves. As one-by-one former comrades-in-arms return to their families, who have not witnessed what they witnessed or done what they have done, The Pacific illustrates that any true accounting of war’s toll must include the young men left alive, “whose souls have been torn.” War is neither romanticized nor polemicized in The Pacific, nor does the series offer anything particularly new. What it does is to reverently pay homage to millions of servicemen who fought and thank them for their sacrifice.