Getting Their Guns Off

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

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.

Sledge, a dutiful son and a model of shaken but unbreakable faith and decency, does delay his enlistment, but not because of any frailty. The filmmakers’ introduction of this fiction might simply be a bid to make more poignant the physical punishments to come. But it appears more like the delicate sidestepping of a socioeconomic issue that plagues debate over military service to this day. In fact, Sledge is urged by his professional-class family to enroll in college and stay there “as long as possible,” in the hope that he might avoid the combat that less fortunate sons (then as in the Vietnam era) had no means of escaping. As a compromise, he joins the ROTC. Never comfortable, however, with using college to defer service, Sledge, along with many others, deliberately washes out of school to go to war. It’s a decision he has cause to regret once he’s ashore on Peleliu, an intricately defended chunk of coral that was arguably of no strategic worth to the Allies.

Certainly one of the reasons why World War II came to be called “the Good War,” and those who fought it “the Greatest Generation,” and why Americans have reserved their utmost sentiment for the European theater of that war, is because the 1945 discovery that we’d helped shut down a genocide redeemed that theater’s carnage—ex post facto—and bestowed upon that campaign a narrative, moral, and even aesthetic appeal that is exceptional for any war. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers epitomize that theater’s irresistible appeal, with their mix of commendably upsetting, technically brilliant combat scenes and more general uplift. Every mangled limb, every shattered facade, every act of conditioned violence stage-whispers “Sacrifice” amid the gently weeping sound track and the faded–Saturday Evening Post color palette, with the overall effect evoking stateliness, esteem, even nostalgia—emotional luxuries that only a comfortable remove can give to the hectic, terrifying nature of combat. All of which takes viewers half out of the moment, despite the kinetic you-are-there cinematography.

DreamWorks and HBO have set themselves a far more difficult task in dealing with the war against Japan, to which Americans, vengeful-minded at the time, were most committed (sentimentally if not in terms of manpower); in which the American casualty rate was three and a half times that in Europe; and which was conducted and concluded in a manner that has provoked enduring ambivalence. Almost entirely missing are the familiarities of the European theater, replaced either by utter foreignness or by a near absence of context beyond the killing.

Two of the battlegrounds highlighted in The Pacific, Peleliu and Iwo Jima, were free-fire zones, void of civilians, save perhaps for Korean slave laborers imported by the Japanese. Here, as in other of the island contests, retreat and reinforcement were impossible for the Japanese, whose refusal to surrender made them mass-suicide units and resulted in gruesomely close combat on a scale not seen in the more mechanized engagements in Europe. The emphasis on knives and flamethrowers attests to the almost medieval intimacy of much Pacific combat. The former, when not frantically applied to throat-slitting infiltrators, were often used to mutilate Japanese corpses in a quest for gold fillings, and the latter proved to be the siege weapon most effective against cave and tunnel emplacements (better than the Navy’s 16-inch guns, which did little but churn soil in these asymmetrical encounters). In an oral history compiled by the Minnesota Historical Society, one of my great-uncles, Nick, who fought and was wounded on both Guam and Okinawa, described the cruel gratifications of using napalm at close range: “The Japanese would come out of those caves with their skin and clothes and everything burning. We’d pick them off. We just ... it was like an amusement park. It was fun killing them like that.”

Not that our interactions with noncombatants were always much better. Like our soldiers in Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of those who fought in the Pacific in World War II were culturally and linguistically cut off from the locals, without trusted interpreters, and were therefore vulnerable and apprehensive. As Peter Schrijvers points out in The GI War Against Japan, a general inability to distinguish among the various Asian nationalities—for example, Chinese from Japanese from Korean or even Filipino—added to the confusion and unease, and could result in the further raping of “comfort women” and the killing of friendly locals, destabilizing relations all the more. Under pressure, U.S. forces wouldn’t hesitate to shoot men and women or raze entire villages suspected of even limited cooperation with the enemy. For their part, American fliers were sometimes cleared to take out hamlets for the mere opportunity the dwellings could provide to the enemy, and failing that, might simply strafe a fishing boat to “get their gun off.” (The phrase comes from Robert Leckie, who uses it to describe idle marines on Guadalcanal shooting up a captured animal for fun.)

But perhaps most unsettling of all for our soldiers was the environment itself. A nighttime rustling of vegetation could produce panicky fusillades and friendly-fire casualties. In one of Sledge’s many agonizing passages, tensed marines lurking after dark in a mangrove stand have to club one of their own to death, lest he—in the grip of a crescendoing hallucination—give away their position. William Manchester, a Marine survivor of Okinawa and the author of Goodbye, Darkness, says of those who fought in the Pacific, “We were all psychotic, inmates of the greatest madhouse in history.”

Observers of subsequent, similar military behaviors—from Stanley Kubrick to Michael Moore to Anthony Swofford, whose memoir Jarhead was rapturously received when it came out on the eve of the Iraq War—have tended to see psychosis to the exclusion of much else, as a presumable product of cynical, fractured times and wars unballasted with the meaning we ascribe to the Good War. It’s a tempting view, attributable in part to the Greatest Generation conceit, which has established a false ideal that our modern soldiers will never live up to. In the 1980s, one of my best friends, B. Bunny, joined the Marines, probably motivated in part by the many proud USMC tales told by my dad, a retired fighter pilot. B. Bunny thereafter regaled me with stories so rowdy they verged on the sociopathic. One involved a jag with several prostitutes that ended with arson and with B. Bunny getting thrown through a storefront window by one of his fellow marines, and I recall thinking that this wasn’t military conduct as I’d been led to imagine it. The 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings and of V-E and V-J days had filled the air with encomiums to our long-lost martial splendor, and I naively felt bad that B. Bunny had to serve in the debased, modern Marine Corps. The journalist Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, a chronicle of his time embedded with Recon Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, makes a few gestures—starting with its unfortunate title—toward the notion that our military has reached a chillingly degraded state.

Culturally, these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the “Greatest Generation.” They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer. For them, “motherfucker” is a term of endearment

These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. More than half of the guys in the platoon come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents.

For disposability, it’s actually hard to top the Greatest Generation, those children of the Depression, conscripted by the tens of thousands and sent off to fill vacancies created by the death and maiming of tens of thousands before them. That’s disposability. As for the rest of it, plus ça change There may not have been Internet porn, gangsta rap, and violent video games back in the day, but there was porn, and there were the comic books and gunslinging genre fiction that the troops subsisted on. It’s a safe bet that had there been gamy computer fare and explicit rap music in their youth, the Greatest Generation would have enjoyed them with gusto.

Fortunately, Wright quickly moves past this ahistorical aside to deliver a piece of reportage as notable for its empathy as for its candor, and one that is largely corroborated by Nathaniel Fick’s exemplary One Bullet Away. (Fick, a young Ivy League–educated lieutenant in the unit with which Wright was embedded, was, in Wright’s narrative, among the most graceful under pressure.)

Unfortunately, those who turned Wright’s book into its own HBO miniseries were taken with the crude folkways of the Marine Corps, and hewed to the standard contemporary emphasis on military pathologies. If when watching Band of Brothers you feel elbowed, as though at a VFW function, to remove your hat and bow your head, watching Generation Kill you feel just as pointedly encouraged to look away in disgust or shame. The mangled limbs and shattered facades shout “Thrill kill!” above the amphetamine chatter and the dingo-pack atmosphere. And when we’re not watching today’s marines wreak havoc, we’re treated mostly to them sitting around having inanely foul conversations, and are generously shown them tending to excretory matters or masturbating indiscreetly.

While shying from none of this, Wright makes palpable everything else that has always existed in war—moral chaos, limited situational awareness, uneven leadership, discriminate and indiscriminate killing, human suffering, and the toll taken even on those physically unharmed. And he manages to do so despite the dubious title. In its own positive notice of Generation Kill, the Naval War College Review felt moved to assure readers that the book does not trade on a cheap blend of “titillation and moral censure,” despite all indication to the contrary given by that title.

Titillation and moral censure have constituted the twin track followed by most depictions of post–World War II combat involving U.S. forces, and can be traced back through works as different as Michael Herr’s Dispatches and the commendable Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace. The approach arguably reached its zenith in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which Herr script-doctored in ways that make it far more enticing as film noir than as a war movie. Of course, the primary source for Apocalypse is Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s roman noir that, if enlisted as a war allegory, does seem to expose some essential truths about armed conflict: its disorienting enticements to man’s “brutal instincts” and “monstrous passions” (to quote Conrad).

But is an unchecked id really the most consequential danger of such conflict? Just as apt yet far more tragic a figure than Kurtz is Conrad’s Lord Jim, who—obsessed with his own rectitude—is all superego. At a critical moment, Jim opts to spare his sensibilities a bit of warranted violence toward a villainous threat, and thus sacrifices the well-being of those who have come to depend on him—people whom, in Conrad’s words, Jim regarded “with a sort of fierce egoism, with a contemptuous tenderness.” In the end, it’s all about Jim.

In combat, conscience can be only a guide, not an absolute. To dwell on it can be as much a transgression as taking leave of it. Most soldiers understand this instinctively, and are additionally drilled and trained in the hope that they’ll operate with due grace under extreme pressure, in an environment that is inherently transgressive. The grim adjustments in conscience required of Eugene Sledge, my Uncle Nick, and countless others may seem like the first steps toward irremediable dehumanization, but those I know who’ve been forced or prepared to make such adjustments have distinguished themselves with a fellow feeling generally in excess of those whose ideal of conduct is, like Lord Jim’s, so fine that it verges on misanthropy. The need to suffer fools and foes alike that comes with military life might be one source of this fellow feeling. When you’re in an army, and particularly in combat, you quickly learn that it most definitely isn’t all about you. If anything, you’re made acutely aware of others and of your place in a larger scheme.

And whether you refers to a draftee in the past who pined for a quiet life back home, and whose violent exploits are now accompanied by melancholy cellos and approbation, or whether it refers to a latchkey-kid enlistee with a sick sense of humor, a video-game habit, and a taste for action, whose unsavory comportment has become a pop-culture addiction all its own, the nature of the sacrifice made in the moment is utterly alike: a forgoing of safety and a willingness to bear the taint of killing, the pain of suffering, and potentially the loss of lives dear, including one’s own, at the behest of others. Each generation of soldiers has possessed all the basic virtues we associate with the Greatest Generation, who in turn possessed, in their day, at least as great a share of distasteful quirks and brutal instincts—again, as The Pacific does an admirably vile job of showing. Maybe now we can retire for good any notions of generational exceptionalism, and stop projecting onto our soldiers the fears and ideals of a largely spectator nation. They’re only human.

By Evan Wright
By E. B. Sledge
By Robert Leckie

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