Since I was a little tough on Treme this morning, let me make a recommendation: If you haven’t been watching HBO’s The Pacific, the companion miniseries to Band of Brothers, you should be. Catch up with your On Demand.
I just finished Episode 9. It was the most intense, wrenching episode hour of television I’ve ever seen. The series features some terrific acting, particularly James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie in the first half of the series, and Joe Mazzello as war hero Eugene Sledge in the second. (Mazzello is a high school friend of my ex-girlfriend. Really nice guy.)
I loved Band of Brothers, though I thought it came close to propaganda in places. There’s no such gloss to The Pacific. It is as dark and crushing a portrayal of war as I’ve ever seen on video. Without ever questioning the legitimacy or justness of the U.S. war effort in the Pacific (and I think even strident libertarians can agree it was both), it’s a potent, jab-to-the-chest lament against war, at least in the broad sense. The central theme of the series is Sledge’s struggle to retain his humanity as everything around him descends into hell. It’s not a novel theme for a war narrative, but it’s the execution that makes The Pacific so compelling. That, and the ambiguity. We’ve seen these themes in “what are we fighting for?” Vietnam War movies. They’re rarer in World War II movies. And despite a moment of redemption toward the end of Episode 9, I’m not entirely sure Sledge succeeds in preserving himself. The message: Even just wars can bend good men toward evil.
There’s a scene at the beginning of the series where Sledge’s father—a medic who served in World War I—tells his son that what most haunts him from the battlefield wasn’t the torn flesh, but the men who came back “with their souls ripped out.” That scene sets the tone for the rest of the series. Where Band of Brothers showcased the physical sacrifices of the World War II generation, The Pacific looks at the grimmer, harder to quantify emotional and spiritual casualties. It suggests in places that the men left on Pacific battlefields may have been better off than those who made it home. In that sense, it leaves you with a more complete and informed appreciation of what the World War II generation gave up.
And perhaps the rest of us, too. At the tail-end of Episode 9, a Marine makes a passing reference to a “new kind of bomb” the U.S. just dropped that “vaporized an entire city.” Another replies, casually, that that sounds great, because it’s “all about killin’ Japs,” a line echoed by Sledge earlier in the same episode as he nearly lost grip on his humanity. The sene is shot in warm tones, and there’s mention of cokes and steak for the guys we’ve just seen endure months of agony and barbarism. It’s a jarring but appropriate bit of ambivalence. The indiscriminately destructive power of the atom bomb ended the war, an unquestionably positive outcome. But in unleashing such a destructive technology, one that would eventually carry the capacity to end every life on earth a dozen times over, we also lost a piece of our collective humanity.
It hasn’t been an easy series to watch. But it’s been affecting, haunting TV. A few episodes in particular have stuck with me days after viewing them.