Books May 2010

Getting Their Guns Off

The books that shaped HBO’s The Pacific give the lie to the notion of generational exceptionalism.
Andrew Cooper/HBO

After years of treating the Greatest Generation with reverence, years in which late-life oral testimonies have established that generation’s quietly reflective bearing, it’s a jolt to read, say, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, and find the heroes of World War II portrayed so anti-heroically, much the way veterans of our later wars have more typically been portrayed. Near the end of that work, Jones—a Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal veteran—has Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt holed up at his prostitute girlfriend’s Honolulu rental on December 7, 1941, AWOL after shivving a noncommissioned officer. In the midst of a days-long bender financed by his girlfriend, Prewitt has slept through the Japanese attack, waking up only to hear the radio reports, blame those “dirty German bastards,” and resume drinking. Violating curfew, he later attempts to sneak back to his unit and is shot dead by friendly fire.

Meanwhile, his comrades have mobilized for the beach, fearing invasion:

Going through the back streets of town, all along the route, men, women and children stood on porches fences cartops and roofs and cheered them roundly. They waved Winnie Churchill’s V for Victory sign at them, and held their thumbs up in the air. Young girls threw them kisses. Mothers of young girls, with tears in their eyes, urged their daughters to throw them more kisses.

The troops, looking wistfully at all this ripe young stuff running around loose that they could not get into, and remembering the old days when civilian girls were not allowed—and did not desire—to speak to soldiers on the street in broad daylight let alone at night in a bar, gave them back the old one-finger salute of the clenched fist jabbing the stiff middle finger into the air.

Given their experiences, Jones and other author-veterans (Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller) had little problem striking disrespectful tones. But at least since Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation project, there has been a general reticence to address the socially disfiguring aspects of that conflict. The 1998 smash movie Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s subsequent Band of Brothers (which between them garnered an army’s worth of Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes) did take a hideous leap forward in portraying physical disfigurement. But despite the depictions of bodily harm, which served partly to amplify the heroic strains, these works were still notably protective of their characters’ dignity. The leads were allowed to be most heavyhearted—say, after having to take out a foe whose humanity was briefly glimpsed—but hard-heartedness was kept generally to the casting margins, or acknowledged under the cover of exigency.

HBO has now released its highly anticipated miniseries The Pacific, a dramatization of our war with Japan, produced by much the same group that brought out Ryan and Band of Brothers (DreamWorks Studios, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks) and based chiefly on memoirs by two marines, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, who fought and suffered in that conflict. Leckie’s colorful Helmet for My Pillow recounts his training and his deployments to Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, with some ribaldry in Melbourne tossed in, whereas Sledge’s With the Old Breed narrates in perfect measure his descent into the horrors of Peleliu and Okinawa, and stands comparison with the battlefield memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon and Philip Caputo. Sledge’s work alone makes The Pacific better than Band of Brothers, and the story line drawn from it is the best and most meticulous part of The Pacific. (A third story line, involving the Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, is less nuanced than the other two, probably for lack of such thoughtful source material.) Any firsthand account of our fight with Japan—an often hole-by-hole war of extermination—will be intensely raw at times, and Leckie’s and Sledge’s books are no exception, yet the filmmakers, while skillfully tending to such difficult material, have once again taken care to shore up the dignity and pathos of the protagonists, in ways not reflected in the texts themselves, and in ways that should have been judged unnecessary for capturing viewer sympathy.

Video: Jon Zobenica comments on three scenes from HBO’s The Pacific

The Pacific finds Sledge in December of 41 looking crestfallen, having just been forbidden from enlisting by his physician father, who’s detected a murmur in Gene’s heart; and it shows Leckie, a new recruit, stopping at church to light a votive candle. Within a year, Leckie is facing his first banzai charge on Guadalcanal, a discomposing event with an aftermath every bit as ghastly, as The Pacific shows. Having isolated a straggling Japanese soldier, Leckie’s fellow marines, now fully wired for sadism, relieve the previous night’s terror with some jeering target practice, nibbling at the enemy soldier with nonfatal rifle rounds while the man pleads for death. To the chagrin of his buddies, Leckie draws his sidearm and issues a coup de grâce. When he and some fellow survivors are finally pulled off the line, they’re told by a slightly awed Navy cook that the press back home is filled with their exploits on Guadalcanal, that they’re national heroes—a concept that seems to strike these weary men as confusing, like an unexpected civilian frippery they barely have the energy to process. There’s no heroism like unbidden heroism.

Reading Sledge’s and Leckie’s memoirs, one finds slightly different tales. Making no mention of church, Leckie flatly informs us on page one that as he left for boot camp he was nursing a tenderness in his crotch, having just had the circumcision required by the Marine Corps. Such was his fierce resolve and the tone of his remembrance. The morning after the banzai charge, he does shoot an isolated Japanese soldier, one who’s fleeing back into the jungle under a hail of businesslike fire from numerous marines, but mercy is not a consideration. With the intention of looting enemy corpses, he then crosses a nearby stream, but is repelled by flies and putrefaction after snatching only a few items. The Pacific’s shifting of depravity from a major character onto minor characters in this instance is akin to employing the passive voice, a way of confronting wretchedness while adeptly furthering the audience’s partiality for Leckie. As for stateside coverage of the Guadalcanal campaign, Leckie and some friends speculate at length about it while still on the island, wondering if they’re famous and even dreaming of being feted with a parade in New York City. When later informed by a serviceman that in fact they’re heroes, they have to quickly turn away lest he see their grateful tears—hardly the gruff reaction portrayed in The Pacific.

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Jon Zobenica is a writer based in Boston.

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