What HBO's The Pacific Means For America Today

A lot, it turns out

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How can you tell that the new HBO miniseries, The Pacific, which documents the U.S. Pacific front in World War II, has contemporary political resonance? Because the series' two famous producers, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, visited the White House today to personally deliver President Obama's advance copy. Clearly, Hanks and Spielberg want Obama -- and the rest of us -- to find The Pacific's application to present-day politics. Hanks has even suggested as much. What does the much-heralded series, which premiered Sunday, mean for American politics today?

  • Resonance for War on Terror  Tom Hanks hints to Time that The Pacific should seem familiar to observers of today's "war on terror" and the sometimes deranged attitude it produces towards Muslims. "Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?"
  • Horrors of War Same Everywhere  The Daily Beast's Bob Kerrey compares the plight of Pacific-theatre soldiers with "the stories told in David Finkel’s 2009 The Good Soldiers, an account of a U.S. Army unit in Iraq that chronicles the transition from the ordinary lives of ordinary men to soldiers doing extraordinary and—by the standards of their other lives—terrible things. You know it does not perish when you look into the eyes of every young man—and now woman—who has hardened themselves to the necessities of war and then, upon reentry to civilian life, wondered how they will adjust to the fact that they have changed while no one around them has."
  • Why Americans Forget Pacific Front  The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin explains, "Americans in the forties were more likely to look toward Europe when thinking about the war; 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." Still today, "Our shaky knowledge of the Pacific region remains a problem for those trying to tell the story of the war." The complexities of the Pacific front are so daunting, she writes, that the HBO special barely attempts to explain them, instead focusing on personal stories of soldiers.
  • We Turned Away From Pacific's Violence  Writing in the U.S. Naval Institute's historical magazine, Richard Frank suggests the violence was just too big and too senseless to comprehend. "If this portrait of the scale of the Asian-Pacific war constitutes a revelation to contemporary Americans, full grasp of the savagery of that conflict likewise provokes surprise. There are no certain figures for the overall death toll in World War II. Published totals now customarily range from 50 million to 65 million—the fact that even today there is no agreement on deaths to within 10 million to 15 million is stunning. The toll in the Asian-Pacific theaters is generally placed between 17 million and 27 million. Thus, at least a third and possibly closer to half the conflict's worldwide deaths occurred in the Asian and Pacific areas."
  • No Appetite For Lectures  Critics alternatively praised or lamented the series' near-total absence of the big-picture political and cultural forces behind the war, instead focusing on simple soldiers' stories. The Wall Street Journal's Nancy Dewolf Smith writes, "Two of the series' most fundamental truths are delivered in single lines. One comes when a taxi-driving vet who served in Europe tells Leckie that the men who fought in the Pacific had the hardest war. Another becomes clear at a sunny behind-the-lines military base where flowers grow and buxom nurses abound—and we are reminded that this picture, familiar even now, is a fake. For most, the Pacific was only blood, mud and lonely, unmitigated fear."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.