Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Media — Rick Moran @ 10:15 am

It isn’t necessarily true in historical circles, but the Pacific campaign during World War II has mostly received short shrift from popular culture, as well as popular histories.

Now HBO is going to remedy that shortcoming with a gigantic 10 part miniseries entitled The Pacific. By most reports, it is a winner - a worthy companion piece to the best miniseries in TV history, Band of Brothers. (Sorry Roots fans but as gripping as that miniseries was, it failed on several levels in its portrayal of history.)

While it is a subjective accolade I give to BoB, the sheer ambition of the project made it tops in my book. That, and the extraordinary characters who made up Easy Company, drawn with loving care, and so far above the usual miniseries one dimensional fare that few other projects have come close. Not coincidentally, another HBO series, John Adams, makes a run at BoB for character development. But despite a strict adherence to historical facts, it never rose above a rather parochial and ordinary view of Adams as an American original rather than the world historical figure he was.

The Pacific promises to fill in some very large, very obvious blanks in our cultural understanding of what happened on those battlefields. First and foremost, the Pacific war was a naval war - “A gut bustin’, mother lovin’ naval war,” as Kirk Douglas playing Commander Paul Eddington opined after Pearl Harbor in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way. The island hopping strategy of McArthur meant that not only ships were required to ferry his forces from hot spot to hot spot, but that American carriers supplied the air power that supported troop landings as well as keeping the supply lines free of Japanese interference.

And Admiral Halsey’s northern Pacific strategy also relied on carriers to get the job done. Ironically, our massive losses at Pearl Harbor forced us to rely on carriers for advancing across the Pacific, despite the fact that until well into 1944, it was still thought by both sides that the decisive naval engagement of the war would occur when the battleships of both sides squared off for one, gigantic Super-Trafalgar, or Jutland. Such never occurred, while our emphasis on sea-air power allowed us to push the Japanese back to their perimeter defenses.

While this was happening at sea, what was occurring on the ground in places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, and other seemingly insignificant piles of volcanic rock, turned out to be a nightmare every bit as terrifying and bloody as any combat Americans have fought anywhere in the world before or since.

Apparently, The Pacific will not stint on showing this:

Modern war movies don’t hold back on the bloodier aspects of combat, a trend unofficially cemented with Steven Spielberg‘s 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan.

The Pacific continues in that vein without feeling exploitative or cheap. The carnage underscores the constant danger Marines faced as they poured onto battlefields already teeming with enemy soldiers.

Viewers will feel the concussive force of every mortar shell and sniper round, a visceral torrent nearly unmatched in modern war pictures.

And, of course, what can never be truly caught on film, the abject terror of the unsettling Japanese tactic of mounting suicide attacks at night, where desperate fighting became hand to hand and the war telescoped down to American soldiers trying to stop a fanatic from skewering him with a bayonet.

No book tells this story better than William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness, that opens with a frank, brutal, searing recounting of how Manchester killed a Japanese soldier up close and personal. That’s the kind of war it was and it had American fighting men having to make a choice; they could despair over the fact that the Japanese were so willing to sacrifice themselves just to get close enough to kill them. Or, they could adopt an absolutely heartless attitude that allowed them to shoot down Japanese soldiers even if they were surrendering.

This grim job was necessary because, as Ronald Spector points out in Eagle Against the Sun, the Japanese military creed of bushido made surrender not only something that would dishonor the individual soldier, but his family as well. So when all was lost, the Japanese soldier was more than likely to pretend to surrender while killing any American who came close enough. Similar instances of Japanese wounded who waited for an American to get close and see if they were dead before trying to kill their enemy were very common as well. The fact that our boys didn’t wait around to see if a Japanese soldier was really surrendering or really dead means that very few POW’s were taken and even fewer wounded POW’s. If you wanted to stay alive, you killed anything with a Japanese uniform on it.

This was the nature of the war. But there are those who have deliberately - or ignorantly - tried to push the notion that the real reason for our brutality was that we were racists and that the entire war in the Pacific - up to and including Hiroshima - could be explained because we saw the Japanese as less than human.

Tom Hanks in Time Magazine:

Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”

Hanks is by no means the first or only revisionist to ignore Pearl Harbor, and the nature of Pacific warfare, to point to our behavior and cry “racism.”

Here’s James Carroll writing in the Boston Herald:

The Iwo Jima image is sacred precisely because the men lifting up the fallen flag are all but unable to do so. The extremity of their exhaustion, their nearness to defeat, the horrors of what they have been through and of what awaits them are all implied in the painful stretch of limbs, in the rough gear of armored clothing, in the absolute investment each has made in a symbol of something better than himself. Even as the valor of what they did on one beachhead after another is properly honored, the American fighters of the Pacific War were not heroes. The desperation of island combat included exchanged barbarities of which no one would willingly speak for a generation. On the American side, there were foul racism, vengeful refusals to take prisoners, a generalized brutality that extended to a savage air war. To raise the flag at Iwo Jima was to lift the transcendent symbol out of the total hell that the war had become. Few if any men who survived it came home speaking of virtue.

Historical accuracy note: the famous flag raising pic on Iwo Jima was actually a picture of the raising of a second, much larger flag. The first flag raising was done by a recon patrol who managed to reach the top of Mt. Suribachi and raise a smaller standard. This overheated, hysterical description is a crock.

A “vengeful refusal” to take prisoners? More like a common sense precaution. And what is war anywhere except a “generalized brutality?” The question isn’t so much was racism a factor in the war. One need only examine our detention policy for American citizens of Japanese descent to agree with that statement. But was it the dominant motivation for the savage combat in the Pacific? Ask the Japanese who saw Americans as sub-humans and treated them that way in POW camps and most especially, on the Bataan Death March.

Hanks, Carroll, and their fellow travelers must ignore, forget, or otherwise subsume certain historical facts in order to arrive at their nonsensical notions of racism being a dominant motivation for our Marines and GI’s in the Pacific war. It doesn’t stand up to the facts.

Hopefully, The Pacific will rise above such idiocies and give the participants in that campaign long overdue homage. There simply hasn’t been the kind of attention paid to these warriors as has been given to participants in the European theater. There have been some excellent books on the Pacific War. I mentioned Spector’s excellent tome. And Barbara Tuchman’s Stillwell and the American Experience in China
offers a compelling and cautionary look at that much misunderstood theater. For sheer beauty of prose, Manchester’s book is one of the best. Alexander’s Utmost Savagery: The Three Days at Tarawa might be the best book on any single battle I’ve ever read. And another good memoir by a real hard case - Eugene Sledge - With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa describes what he went through on Okinawa in a way that makes Truman’s use of the atom bomb totally justifiable.

These and a few other popular histories nothwithstanding, there simply is no comparison with the volume of books written about D-Day, or The Bulge, or most other important battles in the European Theater. It could be that there just weren’t the number of troops involved, or the unbalanced coverage in the press at the time contributed to the illusion that what was happening in the Pacific was a “sideshow” to the war being fought against Hitler.

More books, more movies, more TV shows, more plays - the European theater seems to have embedded itself in our national consciousness in a far greater way than what happened in the Pacific. I sincerely hope that The Pacific begins an evening up process that is long overdue.

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