Why America preferred to forget about the Pacific war – until now

April 04, 2010


A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks TV series about the second world war's brutal Pacific campaign begins tomorrow – a story surprisingly little told because, for years, the public has preferred to turn away from its dark undertone of racism and savagery.

When Tom Hanks was making Saving Private Ryan, the writer Nora Ephron sent him a book that weighs in at almost 2,000 pages: the Library of America's Reporting World War II. It was a thoughtful gift, appropriate to his then role as an infantry captain on D-Day. But when Hanks began dipping into the collection, he remarked earlier this month, what gripped him the most was not the war in Europe but the other great US campaign of the second world war – the battle for the Pacific.

There was an irony in his interest. Hanks is the son of a naval mechanic who served in the Pacific, but when he first picked up the book, as he admitted recently to the historian Douglas Brinkley in Time magazine, he knew almost nothing about his father's war. "Growing up, I always knew Dad was somewhere in the Pacific fixing things," he said. "He had nothing nice to say about the navy. He hated the navy. He hated everybody in the navy. He had no glorious stories about it."

So Hanks knew little of that campaign, except that it began with Pearl Harbor and ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All that happened in between, he said, was a blur of names of battles on remote atolls and unheard-of beaches – Tarawa, Leyte, Peleliu. And all the evidence suggests that he is typical in his ignorance.

While Hanks hopes this will be changed with The Pacific, the 10-part, £150m Band of Brothers-style treatment he and Steven Spielberg have given to that conflict – the most expensive television series ever filmed – his own lack of knowledge raises a puzzling question. Why did the story of the island-hopping campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 100,000 US soldiers, become so difficult to depict, while the war in Europe has spawned endless retellings?

Equally ambitious as a military campaign to D-Day and the operations in Europe that followed, the Pacific campaign saw a vast naval task force forge its way across a huge theatre of operations from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands through to the Philippines and the final brutal battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in Japan's home islands. With combat often at far closer quarters than in Europe, and with troops beset by malaria, dysentery and hunger, the experience was often described as "hellish".

Filmmakers' relative lack of interest in the Pacific puzzled the series director, Tim Van Patten. "Most of the battles in Europe have been abundantly covered. I'm not sure why, but the Pacific has not been covered nearly as well and the battles were long-drawn-out, horrific experiences."

The answers supplied to this question have ranged from the geographical unfamiliarity of the region to the difficulty of corralling an often sprawling history into a manageable story. Significant, too, has been the emerging understanding that the Pacific war's industrial-scale slaughter was underpinned on both sides by racial hatred.

It was not always like this. The immediate aftermath of the Pacific war saw a spate of powerful American memoirs. In 1948 Norman Mailer made his reputation with a first novel, The Naked and the Dead, that dramatised in unsparing detail his own experience of the battle for the Philippines. Hollywood too, at first, was galvanised by the drama of the conflict, its better films including John Ford's They Were Expendable and Allan Dwan's The Sands of Iwo Jima. Many, however, were jingoistic and simplistic, rarely ascribing any shared humanity to the Japanese side, save perhaps for John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific.

Since then, however, while films have examined every aspect of the war in Europe, serious interest in the Pacific has diminished in popular culture, a trend that only began to alter with Terrence Malick's flawed attempt to realise James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line in 1998, and more recently with Clint Eastwood's pair of sympathetic complementary films showing the battle for Iwo Jima from the sides of the US attackers and the Japanese defenders.

Hanks has given his own answer several times: that for all the "bravery" of many of the US soldiers who fought, there is no doubting that iniquities were committed by Americans as well as Japanese. "We wanted to have people say: 'We didn't know our troops did that to Japanese people'," he told Brinkley.

The Pacific tackles this issue in its first episode, depicting a group of US soldiers at Guadalcanal shooting into the arms and legs of a crying Japanese soldier until one shoots him through the heart.

History has come to judge the wars against Japan and Germany in subtly different ways that has made it difficult – if not impossible – to replicate the unambiguously heroic version of the Pacific war consumed by an earlier generation. As the full depravity of Hitler's Final Solution became ever more clear, the war in Europe was underpinned by the notion that it was a fight of good against evil, a "good war". But the combat in the Pacific theatre has come to be understood as a more nuanced and murky affair, one that was poisonously coloured by mutual racial antagonism and barbarity. The conclusion of the Pacific war with the detonation of two atomic bombs has also powerfully influenced how we view the entire campaign.

In some respects the issues are not new. What has happened is that they have been pushed to the forefront.

Three years after the war, Mailer honestly depicted an almost universal lack of sympathy for a Japanese enemy who showed little mercy. But now it is difficult to fathom the strength of that hatred, which informed both the fighting and its remembrance, on the American side. Asked in 1945 for a poll in Fortune magazine whether they believed the Japanese were "naturally cruel and brutal", almost 56% of Americans thought so, compared with 39% who did so of the Germans.

The makers of The Pacific have not shied away from this, with Hanks drawing anger from rightwing commentators and veterans for suggesting that, while the war in Europe was about territory, "the war in the Pacific was a war about terror and racism". "The Pacific was white people fighting yellow people with an absolute hatred of what the other side stood for. It was a look at war for the future. We've fought that brand of war and we're still fighting it now."

Others, however, point to different factors pushing the Pacific war out of the popular imagination.

The New Yorker magazine critic Nancy Franklin, like Hanks a child of a Pacific veteran, believes that the unwillingness of veterans of the Pacific to pass on their memories of combat, in the way those who fought in Europe did, and the unfamiliarity of its locations, contributed to the gradual forgetting.

"Americans in the 1940s were more likely to look toward Europe when thinking about the war," she wrote. "It was what they knew and understood, because it was where most of them were from. They didn't have to look at a map to know where France was. Guadalcanal was a different story. Americans got to know these places – Guam, Saipan, Wake Island, Bougainville, Okinawa – and what the fight was all about, but they didn't hand that knowledge down.

"By the time the next generation came of age, the war in the Pacific had essentially been reduced to two events and one iconic image: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the photograph of marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima."

And if there has been an act of forgetting regarding the Pacific war and all its horrors, it is not one that has been confined simply to the American victors. When the actor Ken Watanabe was interviewed in 2006 about his portrayal of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood'sLetters from Iwo Jima, he said that knowledge of the Pacific war was not much better in Japan.

"Unfortunately most Japanese people aren't aware of this tragedy; even I didn't know until I did the film. It's difficult to say why, but perhaps it has something to do with the lack of a good education." For that reason alone, in both countries, the revisiting of one of the second world war's most brutal campaigns is a necessary corrective.

The first episode of The Pacific is on Sky Movies tomorrow.

By Peter Beaumont

Source : The Observer