The National Catholic Review

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.

Read the rest here.

James Martin, SJ

Comments

Joshua Casteel | 2/13/2011 - 3:25pm
From a dramatic and literary perspective, I can understand Mr. Reidy's criticism of the ''humorlessness'' of The Pacific, and perhaps also the absence of narrative cohesion, moreover character cohesion, of the sort we get to enjoy in, say, Band of Brothers (the title itself tells us to expect as much). Yet, as a combat veteran, I find something fundamentally immoral to Mr. Reidy's criticism.  No less so as a veteran who writes, and writes dramas, about war.


Reidy states: ''The result is a film impressive in scope but absent the compelling narrative thread an epic story requires.'' Which is to say, the representation of war must conform to our ''epic expectations,'' which, unfortunately, is not to represent war at all, or anything else for that matter, but rather to forge fictions preemptively submitted to a stock assortment of dramatic desires. What happens when war itself fails to meet such expectations? Another real part of war is the constant fracturing of relations, whether through death or reassignment, precisely of the sort depicted in The Pacific. This fracturing is itself a form of violence that issues from warfare's demand for expediency.


I knew the ''band'' mythology, of the brotherhood of war, before I saw the miniseries, which was before I deployed to Iraq. Some of this myth conformed to my wartime experiences. Much of it did not. (Romanticism always seems to haunt our aspirations of realism.) In the case of Band of Brothers, one of its romanticisms is the belief that the brotherhood of war is capable of transcending moral and spiritual consciousness, that there is something so fundamental to political violence as to transcend even Christ and His Kingdom, which knows no political interest.


War is fundamentally different to the soldier who believes death should only be feared by those who fail to love God and neighbor; to the soldier who comes to see countries as meaningless in the face of the Kingdom of God; to the soldier who does not fear death but even welcomes it, for belief in Christ's gift of immortality. When failure to love all, especially enemies, is the soldier's gravest of fears, war is a fundamentally different reality. A profoundly alienating reality. A reality sublimely elided by Band of Brothers. I have never seen a film that even supposes the possibility of such a reality. (Which is, itself, a testament to the deep perversion of our psychological imagination, not to mention lack of faith.)


Reidy, it seems, is not yet interested in representations of war, so much as ''war.'' So long as the expectations of genre, whether epic or tragedy or whatever, are given priority to the demands of representation itself, our artistic imagination will remain hopelessly romantic. Artists must always be aware, gravely aware, of the degree to which their art alienates an audience. But no less so to the degree that it pleases an audience. Jesus didn't tell us to pick up our predispositions, but our crosses. We must allow our predispositions to be crucified. Much like the prophet, is this not also the role of the artist?


Nothing perhaps has more stunted the popular martial imagination than the cliche ''war is hell.'' We assume it. Which means we forget it. And then we return to the business of writing nice scripts that represent nothing other than the desires we have failed to question.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 3/28/2010 - 11:54am
I love Paul Fussell, too. The Great War and Modern Memory is one of the great books on World War I.

And in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, he explains how those who fought in World War II felt about the use of the bomb to end it. He was on a troop ship bound for the Pacific when he heard the news.

From a review in Time magazine:

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In 1945 Fussell was a 21-year-old second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon in a division that ''had been through the European war so thoroughly that it had needed to be reconstituted two or three times.'' He was wounded in the back and leg, but not seriously enough to lose his job. After Germany surrendered, the author and his unit were among the blooded troops scheduled to invade Japan. The ferocity of the recent campaigns on Okinawa and Iwo Jima was not lost on those who had survived the crusade against Hitler. Fighting the Japanese on their own turf promised to be the costliest effort of the war.

Fortunately, this estimate remains a matter of speculation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki canceled Operation Olympic and delivered Fussell, reasonably intact, from his enemies. ''For all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades,'' he writes, ''we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.''

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967752,00.html

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Those who now seek to minimize the number of Americans who would have died in an invasion of the mainland should make a greater effort to understand the history of the thirties and of the war.

A short story by William Styron in the New Yorker last year gives another taste of how the prospect of being part of the invasion felt to the men who were fighting in the Pacific.

http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/07/20/090720fi_fiction_styron
JIM MCCREA | 3/27/2010 - 8:00pm
You can buy "With The Old Breed" here:
 
http://www.addall.com/New/compare.cgi?dispCurr=USD&id=197091&isbn=0891419063&location=10000&thetime=20100327165821&author=&title=&state=AK