© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

The Pacific

Producers: Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman

Cast: Joseph Mazzello, James Badge Dale, Jon Seda

The Pacific brings us along the intertwining journeys of three soldiers.  Eugene Sledge is a small-town kid with a heart-murmur who wants to be a man, and ends up becoming more of a war-torn veteran than he ever imagined.  Robert Leckie is a journalist who must force himself to see and do things he never thought he could bring himself to endure.  John Basilone is from a large Italian-American clan, and earns a Medal of Honor for his actions in the war, fighting for the country that embraced his immigrant family.  He must deal with even another set of stresses and pressures brought on by his sudden fame and notoriety due to his heroic actions in the war.

The opening credits of each episode give us an idea of the type of story we are in for.  Close-ups of chalk sketches coming together to create images of the soldiers themselves, all, of course, with Spielberg’s patented subtle use of color among the black and white drawings.  If the soldiers are the sketches, then we are being given an up close look at what they are made of; the charcoal, and how well it stands up to, or crumbles under, the intense stress and pressure that war inevitably brings.

Though heavily peppered with frightening and unique battle scenes, the series focuses more on the plethora of intense psychological disturbances that came not only from the violence of battle, but the situations in which the men were forced to live.  Sometimes it felt as thought they were fighting the elements harder than they were fighting the enemy; they had to eat maggot infested rice as nourishment, could only shower when it rained, endured blisters the size of cherries on their feet, went for days without water.  Not to mention the fact that the Japanese used this to their advantage, poisoning any known water sources with the carcasses of dead animals.

The soldiers weren’t exactly sure why they were there, or what was going on back home or on other fronts of the war.  They could only do what Uncle Sam asked of them.  One soldier commented that they “have to believe our cause is just.”  Hell is not only the impossibility of having a reason for to fight, to go on, for not only knowing but believingin your cause, but it is also the inability to reason with someone or something, such as an enemy trying to end your life or your miserable surroundings for not being adequate to sustain it.

Not only are the soldiers obviously responsible for their own survival in such conditions, but they are responsible for the lives around them, both of their brothers in arms and any civilians they might come across in the country the are invading.  It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for a soldier to be accidentally shot because of one of his comrades, be it for pissing too late at night near a foxhole with a frightened trigger finger or “losing it” and doing something crazy to bring enemy attention (and therefore fire) to your position.  The men were also responsible for dealing with the constant influx of new soldiers, and their apparent proclivity to royally fucking everything up.

Once the tides of the war begin to turn, The Geneva Convention (guaranteeing the safety of enemy POWs) creates even more issues for the men on the few remaining battlefields.  The desperate enemy soon turns to using women and children as literal human shields, or as a moving vehicles in which to strap explosives.  The US soldiers, unable to tell who’s who, are forced to kill anyone that seems the slightest threat, in order to save their own lives, and must deal with the psychological impact of murdering innocent people because of the actions of the enemy.

Everyday seems like the worst day of the soldiers’ lives, and they can’t imagine how it could possibly get worse, until the next day, when it inevitably does.  This atmosphere leads soldiers so far as to commit suicide, and we are shown the darkest sides of humanity, and the consequences that such hatred and fear can bring.  Pulling out teeth for gold, strangling the wounded with their bare hands, killing the young, mutilating the dead; the psychological scars and deaths were almost as prevalent (maybe even more so) than the physical injuries and countless battlefield deaths portrayed in the series.

This was also at a time when psychology was relatively young, so they just thought the men had “lost it” or labeled it “battle fatigue”, and no doctor had any idea how to treat it.  Also, because it was seen as a sign of weakness, soldiers wouldn’t tell anyone about anything they were feeling, and continued to let it build and build until they eventually snapped and had to be dragged of the line or worse, did something insane to get themselves or one of their brothers killed.

As in a few war movies before it, The Pacific did a good job of forcing the audience to hate the opposition (easily, when the men stumble upon the mutilated bodies of US troops) as well as sympathize with them upon finding pictures on their dead bodies of their wives and children back home, adding the mental anguish of killing someone’s father and husband on top of everything else.

Even through the attitude towards certain literature we are shown the disenchantment that the soldiers go through from signing up to coming home.  Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads (a book of martial poems and songs still used in the military today) is passed around for inspiration upon shipping off to basic.  By the end of the war, however, we see a soldier throwing a copy of Hemingway’s anthology Men at War (a collection of the best, most inspirational war stories, according to Hemingway) into the garbage.

The Pacific takes us from Peleliu to Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima and back home.  The entire final episode is dedicated to the soldiers returning home and doing their best to coping with a world for which they’ve been fighting, but has refused to wait for them.  The series had aspects from many great war films; Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Fourth of July, The Thin Red Line, and, of course, Band of Brothers.

I think most people will say that they liked Band of Brothers better; both were full of real-life soldiers, whom we are able to know the mortal fates of, which brings us more into the story and allows us to fully realize that these events actually took place, and that these men and women actually endured the hell that was World War II.  However, Band of Brothers focused more on the brotherhood angle, staying with the same company for the duration of the war, allowing us to see how this group of young men bonded throughout one of the more harrowing experiences in human history.

The Pacific, however, split its story up into three individual arcs through the war, sometimes intersecting, but in doing so gives us a more broad (yet more specific, on an individual level) knowledge of the different psychological scars that are inherent in war.  Because the stories were split up, I had a hard time feeling anything for the characters over the first five or so episodes, although I was still vehemently intrigued by the whole thing.  However, my disassociation with the characters changed drastically by the end of the series, and, for me at least, I felt just as attached to each individual in The Pacific as I felt to the whole company in Band of Brothers (which I also give a 2 on the TVS, by the way).

The series made me think of the difference between a World War in the past against the wars America is in today.  It seems that we’re more inclined to invade other countries for oil as opposed to fighting blatant injustices and protecting our country; when Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor, we ended up dropping a couple of nukes on them and ending this awful thing, when “terrorists” attacked us, we invaded a separate country, under false pretenses no less.

This also accounts for the mentality of the average American citizen in 1942 and during the Vietnam and the Iraq wars.  We all realized what had to be done back then and young men were more willing to go fight and die for the injustices they saw in the world.  Starting with Vietnam, the citizens either weren’t aware of the injustice they were fighting for, or didn’t feel like they were important enough for us to be fighting them.  They had to institute a draft for a reason.  Nothing will divide a country like the needless invasion and deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of our young troops.  And it seems like with the prevalence of the media in wars today, we have a much better gauge of what’s happening and why we’re over there, thus allowing us more freedom to decide whether or not we feel such a war is warranted.  Maybe that’s why people seemed more patriotic back then.  Or maybe that’s just the movies.

And when he gets to Heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell;
One more soldier reporting, sir.
I’ve served my time in hell.

– Epitaph on Marine grave in Guadalcanal, 1942