HBO Series, Spring 2010

After only one episode, jury is still out on The Pacific, the sequel to Band of Brothers.  Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers began the week of 9/11 and continued for the rest of 2001.  Based on the book of the same name by the late historian, Stephen Ambrose, who actually wrote two of the episodes, Band of Brothers was simply great television.  There are those who might think its success was based on the nation’s need to heal and consoled after the “Attack on America,” but the series still holds up, years later.  A classic, the series is shown several times a year, and some of us watch the story of Easy Company every time.

When the series was aired, the largely British cast was largely unknown, except to those who watched Masterpiece Theater. But the actors were uniformly strong screen presences, from Damian Lewis to Ron Livingston to Donny Whalberg to Jamie Bamber to Marc Warren to James McAvoy.  Bamber went on to Battlestar Gallactica, Warren was seen again in Hustle on AMC, Livingston became immortal in the cult classic Office Space, McAvoy starred in Atonement, and Whalberg remained Mark’s brother until he joined the cast of Blue Bloods in 2011.  Damian Lewis had a series of his own, Life, which was too complicated for its own good, but he had already achieved fame as the cold hearted Soames in The Forsythe Saga. I make this short list to point out that BOB had a wonderful cast with actors who were capable of creating memorable characters in a large ensemble cast.  Unlike earlier war films, we could tell the soldiers apart.

So far, all the males in The Pacific look the same.   No one stands out.  And the homogeneity of the cast is part of the problem.  They are all lost in the jungle. Band of Brothers took its time getting started by devoting an entire episode to basic training in Georgia and another episode on combat training in England.  We were given the time to get to know the Band, to see the reign and ruin of Captain Sobel, brought to life vividly by David Schwimmer.  Most importantly, we learned who the characters were and began to care for them. The Pacific compressed into fifty minutes what BOB did in almost two hours for each episode.  In other words, in one fourth of the time, we were introduced to the main characters, thrown into the jungle and exposed to a battle.  In place of plot development and the leisurely exploration of personalities, the audience was literally bombarded and presented with bodies floating in the water, a scene stolen from Robert Capa’s few surviving photographs of Omaha Beach.  As though scenes of death and violence could take the place of a story.

The story is of the Pacific campaign, which began in 1942, a longer and more grueling war than the one in Europe.  Presumably because this other half of the Second World War is less well known to the American public, the series began pedantically with a short history lesson complete with maps, documentary film footage and Tom Hanks telling us what we needed to know. Surely there is a better way to educate viewers.  The average G. I. had never been out of his hometown, had never heard of Guadalcanal (which is in the Solomon Islands), and had no idea of why the Japanese needed to defeat the Americans in the Pacific.  When I was teaching a course on military films, I had to buy an Atlas and work with my students to find the Solomon Islands, floating specks in the Pacific Ocean, hidden in the gutter of the map book.  (This was before Google maps, the greatest invention in the world.) A few scenes in which the bewildered recruits were informed of the current situation would have been more natural than the bombastic bloated Patton-like speech gratuitously provided by a commanding general.

Maybe after 9/11, Band of Brothers was what we needed.  When the series ended in the annus horribilis, Band of Brothers was engraved on our collective memory.  Something has changed between now and September 9, 2001, when Band of Brothers debuted.  But what?  A decade has intervened and perhaps today we don’t want another history of an old war. The Second World War happened seventy years ago.  The Greatest Generation has passed and its heirs are no longer nostalgic. The preventive war on  Iraq and the misuse of American faith in the just cause of an American war has intervened between the faith of the Greatest Generation and The Pacific.  It is 2010 and we feel a loss of faith in the ability of American actions to bring peace and democracy to the world. We were lied to, tricked into fighting a war for reasons that have never been made clear.  Now that we are slowly withdrawing from our ill-fated adventures in the Middle East, the nation has become cynical and dispirited.  It is possible that we won’t get fooled again; but we said that after Vietnam.  Has something gone wrong with us or with our leaders?

Some commentators have declared that The Pacific is a story retold in terms of Vietnam and Iraq, both failed wars.  I find the analogy a bit wishful.  After all, we won a complete and unambiguous victory in a symmetrical war over Japan.   What is compelling about the War in the Pacific is that precisely at that point America lost its innocence.  The significance of the Pacific campaign was not the victory but the loss.  Thousands of young American men died to take tiny pieces of volcanic rock, tipping above the ocean.  American soldiers confronted an enemy with a code of honor that did not accept surrender.  The Germans, like the Americans, understood the European style of war.  When they captured a prisoner, the German military usually followed the Geneva Convention.  When they lost a battle, the Germans surrendered.  The Japanese had a different definition of war and cared little about Geneva and refused to surrender.

The willingness of the fanatical enemy to die to defend each island prevented the Americans from humanizing the aliens and convinced the nation’s leaders that the Japanese would, to a person, fight hand to hand to protect their island home.  Strangely, we celebrate Winston Churchill for vowing to do exactly the same thing to the Germans.  We can, in the comfort of our living rooms today, debate the decision to drop the atomic bombs on cities deliberately left untouched.  But what cannot be debated is the very real and compelling slaughter on the islands in the Pacific, which we used as stepping-stones, taking us to the heart of the enemy.  The taking of these islands, one by one, is presumably the story The Pacific will tell.

The jury is still out on The Pacific for me.  So far, the series does not feel as good nor are the actors as confident as those of Band of Brothers. In an age of Iron Man and Transformers, today’s cultural mindset seems to have shifted from the paradoxes of a real war to video fantasies of certain victory.  Easy Company soldiers looted without a second thought and killed suspected war criminals with impunity. But we could see the humanism in each of Ambrose’s “citizen soldiers.”  Today, heroism can be achieved with loud music and hard costumes and Hong Kong fantasy combat moves.  For a true taste of what the battles of the Pacific looked like, just review a few back issues of Life magazine, spring 1945.   There are images on those pages that could not be shown today, even on HBO.  Read these old magazines, count the casualties, and reenter the mindset of Americans to understand the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I will watch a few more episodes of The Pacific and hope that the filmmakers will do justice to the sacrifice of the thousands of American men who did died for their country on islands whose names they could not pronounce.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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