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HBO's The Pacific
The nihilism of Spielberg's vision
This way and that did he turn…he thought of all
they had done together, and all they had gone through both on the
field of battle and on the waves of the weary sea. As he dwelt on
these things he wept bitterly and lay now on his side, now on his
back, and now face downwards, till at last he rose and went out as one
distraught to wander upon the seashore.
Homer’s The Iliad
A nurse reads the first part of this passage to wounded soldiers in a hospital ward. They’re unconscious or otherwise distracted. Hey, you’re not listening to me, she says.
A man comes in. The Japs have surrendered, he tells the room of war invalids. The nurses and staff run out and cheer and embrace amongst men who cannot run and who cannot embrace. The Japs have surrendered and they’re still crippled.
Such opens the final episode of HBO’s The Pacific. There is no room for Achilles in this show. There is no glory in this universe, there are no immortals. There is only nothingness. There is nothing of meaning during the war, and there is nothing to look forward to. What are we gonna do now? What an idiot says one soldier as he returns home.
The show is relentless in its portrayal of the Pacific theatre against the Japanese, who are a ferocious enemy. It’s as if Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks looked upon Band Of Brothers with its broken planes bleeding burning men, and hanging airmen and frozen tundras and concentration camps and thought: too uplifting! Too heroic and glorious. We need to snuff out all remaining hope and light. It forces you to stare into the horrors of war, at times almost impossibly garish, even sadistic with respect to its viewers. There are few glints of light, that are engulfed by darkness. There is only relentless mud and dust and sand and death and rot and maggots and rain and pain and fear and madness.
The Pacific is the sequel to Band of Brothers, the stunning ode to the US 101st Airborne in the European theatre, from boot camp to D-Day to Germany. Where The Pacific subverted and mocked the glory of The Iliad, Band of Brothers embraced its namesake poem, the glorious speech of Henry V. For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother. We bear witness to an Age of Men that has receded into the past, has ascended to the heights of Olympus. In the first episode, one of the real (now elderly) soldiers tells us three boys from his town killed themselves after they couldn’t enlist. A different time, he says. A different breed.
And the comparisons come at you fast in the final episode. A veteran tells one of our heroes:
I might’ve jumped into Normandy, but at least I got some liberties in London and Paris. You GI – rines, you got nothing but jungle rot and malaria. Welcome home.
We are served nothing but jungle rot and malaria in The Pacific, whereas the jumpers of Band of Brothers were served leadership and their brothers’ love. In The Pacific there is no band of brothers. They’re a broken gaggle of broken boys. None of the characters were even that likeable to begin with. And they largely come home to disappointment. We’re not sure these boys will ever see each other again as they melt back into the vastness of an America that cannot fathom nor appreciate their sacrifice. This is a message the creators chose — it’s not obviously the truth. We learn in the final montage that many of the real men these characters were based on did stay close. But in the show the storylines and the relationships are fragmented. Their lives are scattered at sea, washed up on islands no one will remember.
In Band of Brothers the men are terrified and they’re cynical. Yet they forge a bond. They fight for the guy next to them, not some schmalzy flag. As their transport planes take off on D-Day, their hearts in their throats, we bid them farewell in a glorious dusk, men bidding them farewell atop armoured vehicles and a fleet of planes like great eagles in formation. The screen darkens. We see only a fragment from General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Order of the Day:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
It’s a Great Crusade and they are in the service of the Lord.
God forsakes these men in The Pacific, where the only work is the Devil’s.
In Band of Brothers a child tastes chocolate for the first time. In The Pacific, an infant is blown up in an ambush. The boys on the rocky islands of the Pacific avoid getting to know the names of new recruits — they’ll be gone in a few days anyway. At home they’re maladjusted. While soldiers from the European theatre show off glamourous Nazi flags at dinner, the jungle boys got nothing. One hero, Sledge, smokes a pipe (he didn’t smoke at all when he left). It soothes him. His friend mocks it as outdated.
When he asks for his job back, Bob Leckie’s boss tells him:
We’re proud of all you soldiers.
I was a marine.
We’re proud of all of you.
It’s all the same to them.
When Sledge applies to college, the assessor can’t find anything he’s done to help his application.
Isn’t there anything the Marine Corp taught you that can help you at Alabama Poly?
They taught me how to kill Japs. I got pretty damn good at it.
The show is almost unbearably nihilistic because it holds out the promise of heroism and then snuffs it out before us. When John Basilone, the real hero of Guadalcanal, fights as a semi-god amongst his comrades — an Achilles or a Rambo — we are satisfied. We can see that yes, war is random and other John Basilones never made it as they were mowed down by chance. But this John Basilone mattered. He made a difference. This universe need not be just a one-way grinder, sweeping all these boys into its maw. One man can hold the line against the grind of war. Basilone is awarded the Medal of Honor. He goes home on a propaganda tour. But he returns to his men, as heroes must. He falls in love and marries. He ships out again, this time to Iwo Jima. There he is a hero once more, inspiring his men. He is awarded the Navy Cross. But…. posthumously. For he is mowed down and left on the beach just like countless others. This time he didn’t defeat destiny. And he did not get Achilles’ glorious fall. A few bullets and he is left on the beach in a sea of corpses. His beautiful wife of seven months never remarries. She returns to his family’s home, which sits beneath a dark icy pall. She hands Basilone Snr his son’s Medal of Honor. A sad substitute for their hero son. We cannot have our hero. We cannot defeat destiny and the nihilism of war. There is no redemption to be had on those barren crags in The Pacific.
Maybe it is so nihilistic out of fidelity over artistic choice? Relentless nihilism basically sums up my impression of the Western Front in WWI and the Eastern Front in WWII. Maybe any deviation from the grim reality in the Pacific is more a deviation in narrative over fact. It’s just shocking for an American creator — and the schmalzy Spielberg no less — to portray WWII (the most righteous war) in such a nihilistic and cynical way.
There are exceptions. They come in the shape of women. Women are all essentially angelic in The Pacific. Beautiful nymphs in Melbourne who flock to our broken Yankee boys. Or angelic nurses in white who welcome them back to base or care for their wounds. These celestial creatures are “off limits” — except for our uber-hero John Basilone, who after attaining god-like stature secures his wife, a nurse, after much chasing. But even here, something is amiss. The beautiful Melbourne girls they lovenever reappear, despite seeming to be more than a moment (okay, one does move to the US in the credits to be with her man). And Sledge, one of our most likable protagonists, a late joiner who transforms from a rich kid weakling into a hardened Jap killer, has not even this rite of manhood. Broken after the war, he confesses to a friend he’s a virgin. Jesus H, you went through the entire war and retained your virginity? For him (and so for us) the jungle was a pure sexless hell where angels and nymphs dared not tread, except in fantasy — nurses in white at a distance, or conjured in letters home that washed away in the rain.
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Bob Leckie goes to the home of a pretty Australian girl — who happens to be Greek. Proper Greek. It’s a delightful sequence, with a warm, authentic Greek home and parents and the iridescence of young love. Felt very Melbourne — unable to walk two steps without tripping over a Greek.