In his magnificent book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell writes movingly of a (then) little-known wartime memoir by E.B. Sledge called With the Old Breed. As I recall from Fussell's book, which I must have read four or five times, the author averred that Sledge's memoirs, about his time in the horrible battle on Peleliu Island, ranked among the greatest and most honest of all of the memoirs written about the Second World War. As many WWII veterans at the time said (and Fussell was one of them): "The real war will never get in the books." Sledge's book, said Fussell, was the exception.
I figured that I probably would never be able to track down this Sledge's small masterpiece or hear about it after I closed the pages of Fussell's riveting book. Yet the new HBO series, "The Pacific," produced by the same team that brought us "Band of Brothers," which to my mind is--yes, I know it's hyperbole--the greatest work of art produced for television, has used Sledge's memoir and has even features him as a character in this ten-part series.
Tim Reidy, our online editor, reviews "The Pacific" this week in our online Culture section:
Sledge’s and Leckie’s first-hand reports lend the series a realistic, unfiltered feel, and the series is notable for its refusal to romanticize battle. The shots of Sgt. Basilone, firing on line after line of Japanese soldiers, are an effective reminder of what it took to defeat the Japanese enemy—and the ghosts the veterans lived with long after V-J Day. Later, when we see the enemy burrow deep in to the coral ridges of Peleliu, refusing to surrender, we glimpse the fanaticism that contemporary military leaders must reckon with.
At times, “The Pacific” revels in the horror of combat, and one later episode is unrelievedly grim. Watching a soldier pry a gold tooth from a dead Japanese fighter is suitably shocking, but how often must the scenario be replayed? And is it necessary to present what can only be described as a soulless American soldier, tossing pebbles into the sheared skull of his enemy? An argument can be made that yes, we should witness these scenes, if only to give us pause before setting out to war again. Yet by disturbing the viewer in this way the filmmakers risk alienating their audience. Worse yet, in their search for gravitas they too often leave humor by the wayside.
The portrait of Pfc. Eugene Sledge is particularly humorless. Sledge entered the war late, against the wishes of his father, a doctor. Dr. Sledge tended to veterans of World War I, observing first hand the effects of battle trauma, and worries for his son. As the series unfolds, Dr. Sledge’s anxieties come to fruition in an all too predictable manner. Sledge's skin turns deathly pale and his eyes glaze over. Before long, he too is hunched over a Japanese soldier’s open mouth, knife in hand.
What finally makes “The Pacific” worth watching, though, isn’t the narrative, but the opportunity to observe the genesis of a new global order. One cannot make a film about the Pacific theater, after all, without the specter of the atomic bomb pressing in on every frame. So as the Japanese soldiers fight to the death in Peleliu, astute viewers may be reminded of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose staff argued that a land invasion of Japan would result in tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. And in the brutal conduct of the American soldier, who demonizes the “Japs” as less than human, there are signs of the fierce will to win that ended in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
James Martin, SJ