Tuned In

HBO's The Pacific: What Fresh Hell

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If you watched the ten brutal episodes of HBO’s Band of Brothers–in which war was not glorious but miserable, and death sudden and ignominious–you were probably not thinking that there was an even uglier side to World War II that this miniseries was not showing you. But there was, and showing that side is the project of The Pacific, the ten-episode bookend that in nearly every way improves on its 2001 European-theater predecessor.

The war against Japan was different from the war against Hitler militarily, topographically and psychologically. WWII in Europe was, for all its mechanized death and horror, in some ways a throwback: it was the last great (so far) land war in Europe, fought in places with recognizable names by great massed armies. The men fighting there may have not known the big picture or cared about the geopolitics, but they at least recognized the war.

(As did we. For whatever reason, the movies have had more success with war-in-Europe stories than with war-in-the-Pacific stories like Letters from Iwo Jima and The Thin Red Line. Even WWII videogames, like Call of Duty, involve Nazi-fighting more often than Pacific-war scenarios.)

In the other theater, The Pacific makes painfully clear in its early episodes, the Marines that it follows had no idea what they were getting into. On the one hand, the war was simple: Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, and now we were going to get those bastards back. On the other hand, they were going to be introduced to a kind of war they had scarcely imagined, on islands they didn’t know, at a cost they could not conceive. “I might have jumped into Normandy, but at least I got some liberties in London and Paris,” a Europe vet tells a Marine after the war. “You got nothing but jungle rot and malaria.”

The Pacific’s Marines are not naive: they know they’re going off to face a fierce enemy. But they go into the war in December 1941 talking about being home by next Christmas. Some expect a “cakewalk.” No one can pronounce “Guadalcanal.” We can, and the reason we know it is how horrible it—and Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and Peleliu—became for them.

If Band of Brothers’ soldiers were fighting the last kind of war, in many ways The Pacific’s are going to fight the next one. They land on their first beach in a flotilla of armored ships, and we, like them, are dreading the kind of D-Day firefight we saw in Band, and before that in Saving Private Ryan. They land: quiet. For the moment.

Instead of tank columns and shelled European cities, they find oppressive heat, disease and an enemy using guerilla tactics, suicide missions and sometimes civilians. There are poisoned wells and bugs in the rice (“Think of it as meat”). It’s part Vietnam, part Iraq, part horror movie. (In some of the most tense scenes of waiting, in the jungle, in the dark, it is–and I don’t mean this to be glib–like the sense of menace in a scene from Lost.)

But there’s little History Channel-like attention to the sweep and strategy of the war; really, The Pacfic is not about “war” as practiced by generals, but fighting as done by grunts. And unlike Band of Brothers, which spread its attention among a wide ensemble fighting together, The Pacific focuses mainly on three Marines, in different units, whose stories and battles are mostly separate.

Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) is a smart, cocky aspiring writer who struggles to keep his body and mind intact through some of the war’s fiercest fighting; Dale nails the role, making Leckie a soulful rogue. John Basilone (Jon Seda) is a Medal of Honor winner whose heroism wins him a trip home to sell war bonds—a prize, and a role, he’s uncomfortable with. And Joe Mazzello has maybe the most psychologically tricky role: Eugene Sledge, who has a guaranteed out from fighting—a heart murmur—and enlists anyway, over the objections of his father, who worries he’ll come back dead-eyed and broken like men he’s seen from WWI.

The deeper Sledge gets into the war, the more he sees that his father may have been right. This is a kind of war that tries soldiers’ souls, and minds. Threats seem to be everywhere. Rumors fly (the Japanese have poisoned the coconuts, goes one). Witnessing atrocities and an almost incomprehensible willingness of the enemy to die takes a toll, and brings out ugliness in some soldiers along with the best in others. There are acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, as well as casual racism toward the “yellow monkeys.” After one savage battle, a few Marines amuse themselves by taking potshots at a stranded enemy soldier, to kill him slowly; disgusted, Leckie dispatches the soldier with his sidearm to end it.

(A personal note: my dad was a Marine in the Pacific in WWII–he was in his 50s when I was born–and the clichés about what war like that does to men are true: the lifelong nightmares, and above all, the reluctance ever to talk about what happened, other than funny stories about the lousy food shipboard. So though I’m younger than the Baby Boom audience, and the Baby Boomers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg who produced this, I can understand that generation’s attraction to Band and to this story: it’s a way of having a conversation you could never have in life.)

As the Marines island-hop from one meat-grinder to another, The Pacific ventures into morally grey territory that begins to recall later wars; at times, it’s like watching a Vietnam movie. Like Band of Brothers’, the miniseries tone is stark but nonjudgmental; it challenges but it doesn’t preach. Late into it, we see some of its most horrible images, on Okinawa, where civilians are mixed up in the fighting. A Marine shoots an unarmed, underage civilian point-blank—”We’re here to kill Japs!”—and you identify with Sledge as he scolds the man. Shortly after, we hear that the U.S. has just dropped a bomb and vaporized Hiroshima. (“It killed a lot of Japs.”) The Pacific isn’t drawing lines or passing judgments; it’s saying that this is what the war was.

But it’s also showing us how the war felt. One weakness of Band of Brothers, for all its gut-punch power, was that it was so committed to verisimilitude, to its ensemble approach and to the model of Stephen Ambrose’s book that the soldiers were often indistinguishable, despite fine performances from the likes of Damian Lewis. It was as if the war was the star, not the men. The Pacific—based on wartime memoirs and follow-up research—is no less committed to realism, but its tighter focus on three men makes it easier both to follow and to commit to. Its narrative is more movie-like, while being no less honest.

That said, there’s plenty of war in The Pacific, treated with documentary devotion. Tom Hanks’ $250 million shows on the screen—in enormous vistas of fighting ships, in jarring explosions that come from just outside your field of vision, in spectacular firefights you can feel in your bones. But—even harder to take—it shows the small horrors of war too: children fleeing battle, torture victims, bone and guts and people begging for death. And while it’s hard to convey tropical heat and chronic weariness onscreen, The Pacific manages to viscerally sell the agony of noncombat too, the terror, disease and hostile weather. It even rains loud on this show.

This is where it feels like I should say that to understand the sacrifices these men made, you should watch The Pacific. But I won’t. For one thing, I don’t know “what it was like”; I didn’t fight in a war, I watched a damn miniseries in the comfort of my home. Nor do I have any business lecturing you that you should watch an HBO series out of moral obligation, as if whatever debt we have could be repaid by watching TV.

But if you want to watch The Pacific, it will repay you with a brutal but eloquent story that’s finally less about how men fight and die than what happens to them when they fight and survive. It will show you how character and sheer, unfair randomness combine to produce cruelty or decency. And it will make you feel deeply for the men who return, tentatively coming back to peaceful towns, exploring their souls like men checking their body parts after a mortar explosion, anxiously feeling themselves out to see what’s still there.