A Very Good War
HBO’s 10-part miniseries The Pacific tells the story of the U.S. Marine Corps' First Division from Guadalcanal to Okinawa during World War II. It’s always a little risky to presume that seeing the dramatization of one unit’s experience is enough to understand the entire war’s history. However, by allowing us inside the lives of three men—Eugene Sledge (played by Joe Mazzello), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), and John Basilone (Jon Seda)—and by combining the research of historians John Dower, Richard Frank, Hugh Ambrose, Akira Iriye, and Donald Miller, The Pacific is a grim, nearly joyless foundation for understanding the horror and the consequences of Japan’s imperial ambition.
The U.S. Marines did not think the war would end. They began to believe they would have to kill every Japanese man, woman, and child in order to win.
The miniseries, which begins airing Sunday at 9 p.m., and is executive produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman, makes a strong case that it was the Japanese leaders’ unwillingness to surrender (when—as early as the summer of 1944—it was clear that military victory was impossible) that led American leaders to order bombing campaigns, including the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many have argued that the Japanese were willing to negotiate if we had only been a little more patient. The Pacific—and recent scholarship like Max Hastings’ Retribution—illustrate that the likely human cost of that course of action would have been greater than the one we pursued.
But such discussions and debates are not necessary for watching this series, which tells the parallel World War II story of HBO’s 2001 European-set Band of Brothers. Better to be grateful for the making of it, for it cannot fail to impress upon all viewers that the consequences of war cannot be lost in the larger arguments over historical causes.
The Pacific gives us a view of the horrible and unimaginable loss, degradation, trauma, and pain of the least well known half of the Second World War. It tells the story of very young men who had little or no idea of what they were doing or why. And it tells the story of these men being pushed beyond their physical, mental, or moral endurance.
Death comes randomly. One man makes it across the defilade on the beach and another does not. One man slows his step and the bullet passes him by. One turns left and dies for the involuntary choice. The details cannot be repeated at patriotic events celebrating bravery and honor. They do not inspire us into unquestioning loyalty; they sadden us and provoke the unanswerable existential question: Why? Why did it happen this way?
Accompanying each part of the series are historical background documentaries, which help the viewer understand the context of the events. They also help you understand the tendency in war to become less than you hoped. Two of the main characters, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, came home to write of what they saw and experienced, and their books provide source material for the miniseries. To describe the hatred. The filth. The fear.
The U.S. Marines did not think the war would end. They began to believe they would have to kill every Japanese man, woman, and child in order to win. Many of the Japanese believed that death was far preferable than the dishonor to their families of becoming prisoners. They believed the emperor was a god. Both sides imagined the other was a monster, a subhuman worthy only of death.
But then the emperor surrendered and the war ended. The animosities ebbed. It is difficult for non-combatants to understand how the bitterest of enemies can become friends. They have shared something that unites them forever. Looking at the change from the vantage of peace, historian John Dower speaks for me when he says: “This war was madness.”
And madness does not perish with the body. It does not perish in the stories told in David Finkel’s 2009 The Good Soldiers, an account of a U.S. Army unit in Iraq that chronicles the transition from the ordinary lives of ordinary men to soldiers doing extraordinary and—by the standards of their other lives—terrible things. You know it does not perish when you look into the eyes of every young man—and now woman—who has hardened themselves to the necessities of war and then, upon reentry to civilian life, wondered how they will adjust to the fact that they have changed while no one around them has.
You know it does not die when you follow Chesty Puller home and learn the details of his son’s life. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, who appears in the Guadalcanal part of The Pacific played by William Sadler, was the most decorated Marine who ever served, earning five Navy Crosses, each of which could easily have been upgraded to a Congressional Medal of Honor.
When the war ended, General Puller continued his career. He named his first son Lewis Puller, Jr. The boy idolized his father. He dreamed of following in his footsteps and of sitting on the porch of his Saluda, Virginia, home swapping war stories with Chesty. Unfortunately, he was found to be medically unfit for service. Even more unfortunately, he found a way to get the Marine Corps to let him in. He became an infantry officer in Vietnam. He tripped a booby-trapped 105mm howitzer round. The explosion severed his legs at the hip. Thanks to dramatically improved medical procedures, his life was saved.
Back as a civilian and after his father had died, he wrote a memoir, A Fortunate Son, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work. It wasn’t enough. A few years later, while listening to a recording of the song by Credence Clearwater Revival, which provided him with a title to his book, he put a pistol to his head and killed himself. The madness of his war did not end with his homecoming.
The Pacific pushes the limits of what human beings can bear to be shown about the reality of war. If you do not cry while watching this series, you need professional help. And—though I would be petty to criticize the often over-swelling music or the sometimes manipulative images like that of a young widow looking off into a beautiful sunset—I doubt that this series will cause you to fall in love with the romance of war. If it does, you may be beyond professional help.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers was published in 2007. It has been updated to 2009.
Bob Kerrey served three years in the United States Navy. His career in public service also includes being the governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, Kerrey published a widely praised memoir, When I Was A Young Man. He has been president of The New School since 2001.