Tuesday, March 16, 2010

THE PACIFIC, Episode One- Some Notes

I wanted to get into a discussion of the first episode of HBO's The Pacific yesterday, but there was the small problem of starting the cleanup after the nor'easter that battered the mid-Atlantic over the weekend. Actually it was better to sit back and view it a second time,and collect my thoughts about the episode, its historical significance, and maybe even a different spin on the episode and the commentary of others.

I posted several comments on Alan Sepinwall's What's Alan Watching? blog about my take on Episode One, and found some of the comments there quite interesting- but I'll get back to that shortly.

The first episode introduced us to the main characters; Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda), new Marine enlistee Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), and young Alabaman Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazello). Sledge wants to join the military and be part of the war effort, but his physician father told him after an examination that he still has a heart murmur, that would disqualify him from service. His best friend Sid Phillips (Ashton Holmes) joined the Marines about the same time Leckie did, and Leckie and Phillips end up in the same company headed to the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal in August, 1942.

Basilone, who did a stint in the Army before re-enlisting as a Marine, and his buddies Manny Rodriguez (Jon Bernthal) and JP Morgan (Joshua Bitton) had been told previously in a briefing by Lt.Col. Chesty Puller that they too were on their way to Guadalcanal.

Leckie, Phillips and their company are part of the early assault on Guadalcanal. When they hit the beach they find no resistance at all, only other Marines who were there first. The Japanese were building an airfield on the island, but it was captured by the first wave of Marines as the Japanese retreated into the jungle. The field became known as Henderson Field, and the Marines had to secure it and Guadalcanal from the Japanese who surely would try to retake the airstrip.

Leckie's company starts a long march in silence across the fields and jungles of the island, but did not engage the enemy. They did come upon bodies of dead and mutilated Marines along the march. While hunkering down for the night in torrential rain one of their own is shot and killed by a fellow Marine when the man was looking for a place to urinate.

The company finds themselves cutoff from the US naval fleet when they are repelled by the enemy and forced back to sea. Soon the company is attacked by swarms of Japanese in a night time attack, with dozens of Japanese soldiers running into entrenched Marine machine gun fire. The fight lasts all night; the next day dozens of dead Japanese soldiers lie on the beach and in the water. The Marines are horrified by the amount of death around them. One Japanese started to motion that he is wounded and needed help; when two medics approach him, he pulls the pin from a grenade, blowing all three of them up.

Then a small group of Japanese soldiers attack the company and all but one are cut down. After the Marines saw two of their own blown up by a wounded Japanese they decide no prisoners- they start using the Japanese soldier for target practice. The soldier throws down his weapon, but seems hysterical and not about to surrender. While the Marines are trying to wound the soldier as often as they could, Leckie takes out his sidearm, and kills the soldier.

Leckie later goes through personal belongs of the man he killed. He finds a small black and white photo of the man with a woman in a book he is carrying...he also finds a tiny homemade doll of a woman in traditional Japanese dress. Leckie threw the photograph into the Marine's campfire.

The next day reinforcements arrive, led by Chesty Puller. Among them are Basilone, Rodriguez, and Morgan. The episode ends with a reading of aloud of a letter from Sledge to his friend Phillips. When it was revealed that it was Phillips birthday, the Marines sang a scatological version of "Happy Birthday" to Phillips as the picture faded to black.

Some commented on other forums about the first episode's lack drama, and there were periods of silence where nothing was seemingly happening. And maybe that was one way the writers wanted to make clear that the Pacific theater was a different kind of war than that fought in Europe and North Africa. The Japanese were there first; they knew the terrain, and the Americans had to slowly get the feel of where they were and what was in front of them. The Japanese used the jungles and the night to their advantage- the war in Europe was usually fought in daylight (with exceptions) while the Pacific war raged 24 hours a day.

You can't talk about the war in the Pacific without talking about the role race played in it. The Japanese believed they were "spirit warriors" superior to others, who served a living god, their emperor. The code of Bushido was used by the Japanese war party in much the same way as the myth of Aryan superiority was incorporated by the Nazis; the chivalry of ancient Japanese knighthood was corrupted into a belief of showing no quarter to your enemy, and asking none for yourself. There could be no surrender for the Japanese spirit warrior, because it was dishonorable. And those the spirit warrior vanquished weren't deserving of mercy; In the Japanese conquest of China entire civilian populations were slaughtered, men, women, and children...the "Rape of Nanking" in which 300,000 Chinese were murdered during a six week period (December 1937- Jan 1938) is regarded as the worst single atrocity of World War II by many historians. The Japanese warlords regarded Americans as a mongrel nation because of its different cultures, and cowardly...surely they would surrender quickly to the "spirit warriors".

The shock of Pearl Harbor and the fear of an imminent invasion from Japan caused the United States government to strip thousands of Japanese Americans of their basic rights as US citizens and sent them to interment camps throughout the United States. This was without precedent in American history, and few Americans of German or Italian decent were subject to similar extreme treatment.

Early in the 20th century the Japanese were well regarded in the United States, as they were seen by many as trying to Westernize and be more like Americans and western Europeans, while Chinese, Koreans, Indo-Chinese, and other Asians were regarded as primitive. In his book The Imperial Cruise author James Bradley tells of President Theodore Roosevelt's affection and enthusiasm for the Japanese, regarding them (in Bradley's words) as "honorary Aryans". Teddy Roosevelt went so far as to broker a peace agreement between Japan and Russia to end the Russo-Japanese War at Portsmouth, NH in 1905; the Russians didn't know of TR's friendship with the Japanese ambassador, nor of TR's secret plan to set up a "Japanese Monroe Doctrine" in Asia, where the Japanese would be the primary power in Asia and Oceania, getting the European powers to keep "hands off Asia". With an unofficial partner in this concept with the United States, both emerging Pacific powers would dominate the region.....but in effect, it set the two budding military giants on a collision course to war 35 years later.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked and the American fleet destroyed, the "honorary Aryans" became "Yellow Monkeys", or buck toothed sub-humans with Coke Bottle glasses. The caricatures were widely distributed by the press, and done with the consent of the United States government. The hatred ran deep for the Japanese, much more so than for the Germans in the European war.

In the European theater the war was a series of attacks, counter attacks, retreats, and advances...and repeat. In most cases, when a combatant surrendered they were taken to a POW camp. There were atrocities involving POW's, but in Europe that was the exception, not the rule.

The Pacific war was different. It was more like a small war involving a small piece of turf in the middle of an ocean....surrender was not an option. The heat, humidity, insects and disease was as much an enemy as the guys you were shooting at. There were few jubilant civilians to cheer you for liberating them, and no 48 hour passes to Paris or Amsterdam. And after you job was done, you got to do it again on another island.

The European war was like getting heavy dose of hell. The Pacific war was like opening the gate to hell and having it locked behind you with no way out.

I commented on Alan's blog about one or two of the posters who talked about "potty mouthed" Marines....and the very thought made me laugh out loud. Some people obviously never got the memo that this is the way guys (and some women) talk in the service. Though a movie like FULL METAL JACKET was over the top (Pyle blowing away his DI in boot camp), the language directed at and the treatment of men in boot camp (or basic training) was closer to the mark than the silly cartoonish stuff in STRIPES, for example (a funny movie....but a realistic depiction of life in the military...no way!).

In closing....I watched the first episode of THE PACIFIC with my Dad, who'll be 83 in about three weeks, and a veteran of the Pacific theater.

Dad is having some memory problems....often he can't remember what he had for lunch, or which doctor he has his appointment with on a given day.

But when the scene came in Episode One where the Marines were about to land on Guadalcanal, he turned to me and said...."After Pearl Harbor, we only had three aircraft carriers left".

Sixty-eight years later, and the old vet could still remember that fact.

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