Monday, May 10, 2010

THE PACIFIC, Episode Nine- Okinawa and the Beginning of The End

This is the latest installment of my review of HBO"s THE PACIFIC, following the story of three US Marines and their comrades in that theater in World War Two

Episode Nine of The Pacific was probably the most difficult of any to watch, probably because the level of death and devastation to the civilian population of Okinawa during the 82 day siege in the spring and summer of 1945. About one third of the island's 490,000 natives were killed, some caught in the crossfire, some used as human shields by the Japanese, some conscripted into the Japanese army, which was going to defend the island to the last man; Japan had already reconciled that it could not hold Okinawa- they would try to kill as many Americans as they could before the anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One aspect of the invasion that the episode did not show was the mass suicide of scores of civilians who were told by the Japanese that the Americans would rape and torture them after capture. There were newsreel accounts from the island of mothers throwing their children from cliffs, and then jumping to their deaths.

There were 300,000 American troops in the invasion of Okinawa, both Marines and Army, and a flotilla of more than 1,500 ships. There were 110,000 defenders on Okinawa, including Okinawan conscripts. American losses in the battle, in both sea and air were around 72,300- that's the population of my hometown, plus two neighboring ones, combined.

In Episode 8 Sledge (Joe Mazzello), Snafu (Rami Malek), Burgin, and Leyden are joined by reinforcements Hamm and Kathy; its May 1945 in the siege of Okinawa. The First Marine Division is under constant fire, and there are heavy casualties; they're up to their necks in mud and muck, and there is frequent torrential rain. Vehicles can't get through to pick up the wounded or remove the dead; often corpses are left to rot. And at times when the Marines are told to "dig in" they come upon a freshly buried body, which they occupy just the same.

Sledge, once the the innocent inheritor of the gentility of the Old South's aristocracy, has morphed into a killing machine, one who thinks that the only way to ever beat Japan is to kill every last one of them. And that was one of the more chilling aspects of the episode- this fresh faced kid who we saw in Mobile in Episode One nearly loses his soul from the ambiguous morality of what a combatatant has to do in wartime.

In one firefight the Japanese use civilians as a human shield, and most are killed in the crossfire; Hamm is also among the dead. With each day the Marines start to descend closer to madness; Snafu and Sledge, who became friends since Peleliu, have to be separated before coming to blows. Sledge and Snafu come to a bombed out hut, where they find a crying baby next to its dead mother; they look at the infant with a robotic blankness; another Marine picks the baby up and admonishes the non- responsive duo with a "what's wrong with you guys?".

After Snafu leaves the hut, Sledge finds a badly wounded Okinawan woman lying on the floor of the hut, apparently dying. In the most harrowing and gut wrenching scene in a series full of them Sledge approaches her with his weapon aimed at her; the woman grabs the weapon and draws it to her head, motioning Sledge to kill her.

Sledge pauses for what seems like an eternity- and at that moment he finds a spark of moral redemption; he puts down his weapon, and cradles the dying woman in his arms until she passes on. Eugene Sledge was at the brink of losing any moral compass that he had, and at that moment he grabbed it back. He was still human, and had compassion for this poor dying soul caught in the crossfire. She was of a different race, that of his mortal enemy who he swore to kill, but was not of them. Sledge's father warned him of what he had seen in the First World War, the scores of men who lost their souls. Eugene Sledge would have lost his had he killed the woman. He was saved by his own humanity.

Sledge leaves the hut, and sees a young Japanese soldier trying to surrender. He allows him to live, but then the soldier is killed by a group of new Marines.

The last scene of the episode shows Okinawa secured. It is Augest, 1945. Their CO tells Sledge, Burgin, and Snafu that the Americans had dropped some new kind of bomb on a Japanese city, killing everyone. They didn't know it yet, but it was the end of the war in the Pacific, and the birth of a second war, a Cold War.

This episode underscores what many feel today, and felt back in 1945 when the decision to drop the atomic bomb first on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki was made; an invasion of the Japanese homeland would have probably resulted in a slaughter on a scale never before seen in human history. Allied casualties could have been a million or more, and that of the Japanese may have reached ten times that. As far as not invading Japan but surrounding the islands to "starve them into submission"- that would have resulted in even more widespread misery to the civilian population, and would have made Allied warships sitting ducks for kamikaze attacks.

All war is full of moral ambiguity on some level; and so was the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The unthinkable became the necessary, because any other way might have been at a cost too steep to pay.

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