Historian or Hysterian?
This weekend's "big" TV event is HBO's premiere of The Pacific, the 10-part mini-series about World War II in that particular theater. It's a sequel (of sorts) to Band of Brothers, the gripping, critically-acclaimed--2001 mini-series about the men of Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne Division.
Band provided a paratrooper's eye-view of World War II, following the men of Easy Company through training and into combat across Europe. The Pacific promises a similar perspective on the island-hopping campaign from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, as seen by three Marines: John Basilone, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.
At a cost of $200 million, The Pacific is the most expensive production in the history of television, and the lavish budget will be evident on your screen. Executive Producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg insisted on realism and historical accuracy, down to the smallest detail. The narrative is based on two of the better combat memoirs of World War II (Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge's With the Old Breed), and the exploits of John Basilone, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism at Guadalcanal, and a posthumous Navy Cross on Iwo Jima.
Still, viewers may find some disturbing elements in The Pacific, and we're not referring to the graphic combat sequences. In preparation for the mini-series debut, Time magazine published a fawning profile of Mr. Hanks, dubbing him America's "Historian-in-Chief." The actor doesn't have any academic credentials in the subject and his view of past events has been largely shaped by the writers whose books serve as the basis for his productions (Stephen Ambrose for Band of Brothers; David McCullough for John Adams) or other historians (Doris Kearns Goodwin) who share his liberal political views.
That's why The Pacific might catch you by surprise. While Mr. Hanks has largely played it straight with past mini-series, some of the comments in the Time interview suggest a slightly different perspective for his latest effort. Consider this "out-take" from America's favorite auteur/historian:
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?"
Or, how about this one:
"Certainly, we wanted to honor U.S. bravery in The Pacific," Hanks says. "But we also wanted to have people say, 'We didn't know our troops did that to Japanese people.' "
Regarding the former comment, it doesn't sound like Tom Hanks has a very "nuanced" view of history, as Time profiler (and historian) Douglas Brinkley suggests in his article. Even a casual student of history knows the "war of annihilation" was a product of the historical, military and cultural factors that spawned the conflict.
Simply stated, Japanese expansionism put Tokyo on a collision course with the United States, the dominant power in the Pacific. Japan initiated the conflict with a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, hoping to devastate our fleet and generate a string of victories that would produce a negotiated settlement. Tokyo's military leaders--with some notable exceptions--thought America had no stomach for a protracted, bloody conflict. It was one of the greatest blunders in geopolitical history. Determined to achieve total victory, the U.S. mobilized and spent the next three and a half-years slugging its was across the Pacific, retaking territory seized by the enemy and (ultimately) taking the fight to Japan's home islands.
On the battlefield, the conflict was waged with a particular savagery. U.S. atrocities (described in some detail by Eugene Sledge in his book) did occur--that is a historical fact. But they were often in response to barbaric actions by the Japanese. Allied prisoners suffered extreme torture and deprivation at the hands of their captors; downed airmen were sometimes beheaded with a samurai sword, in front of other POWs.
Captured Marines often received similar treatment. Many were beaten beyond recognition, before finally being executed. Then, as a final act of desecration, the Japanese would cut off the genitals of dead Americans and stuff them in the corpse's mouth. Little wonder that the Marines sometimes sought revenge by doing the same thing to their enemy.
As for the parallels to the current War on Terror, we're still scratching our heads on that one. Truth be told, the U.S. has waged an exceptionally careful war against Islamic extremists, taking every opportunity to win the support of civilian populations and minimize their suffering. We've been "debating" the treatment of terror suspects since the conflict began, actually granting them legal standing as combatants (never mind they're not covered by the Geneva Convention), full medical care and even culturally-correct meals.
Of course, the Islamists haven't followed suit. U.S. and allied troops captured by the terrorists have faced torture, deprivation and death--the same tactics employed by the Japanese. As for the current "war of annihilation," it's definitely a one-sided affair, given our exhaustive rules of engagement and the billions spent to rebuild the "enemy" homeland in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It will be interesting to see how Mr. Hank's worldview has shaped The Pacific. Both he (and HBO) deserve great credit for tackling this project and telling stories that have been forgotten or neglected in our recollections of World War II. But if Tom Hanks and his production team try to equate (relatively) isolated American atrocities with the barbarism, then the mini-series and its message will fatally flawed.
Men like Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, John Basilone and my uncle Walter (who died at Peleliu) deserve an honest, reverent account of their actions. Beginning Sunday night, we will see if Tom Hanks' production has met that goal, and decide if he is a historian, or just another pop culture hysterian.