Saturday, April 03, 2010

In review of HBO's "Pacific": No More Great Wars!

I've been watching the new HBO TV miniseries "Pacific." Produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who also produced the series "Band of Brothers," it aims to tell the story of the Pacific theater of the Second World War using the same combination of ultra-violent realistic action sequences combined with small-scale intimate character development that made that earlier series such a compelling watch. "Band of Brothers" largely avoided discussion of the larger issues raised by the war: it followed the story of a paratroop company in the last year of the war, from the Allied invasion of Normandy through various ill-fated attempts to invade Germany through the liberation of the concentration camps and the surrender of German forces. Although it portrays its characters as brave and heroic, and they were, it doesn't glamorize what being at war was about. It looks hellish. It makes occasional attempts to humanize the foot soldiers of the "enemy," but as one would expect doesn't step away from the standard narrative of what the war was about.

I'm not finding "Pacific" quite as compelling. Something about the story-telling isn't as successful. The expensively-filmed action sequences are that convincing combination of violence-voyeurism and dangerous excitement that most of us who were once little boys find irresistible; but so far the characters seem undeveloped and confusing to me. Nevermind that, of course, I'll keep watching it through. But if the traditional narrative of the WW2 and a miniseries like "Band of Brothers" is able to claim a sort of moral high ground by focusing on the forces that fought the embodiment of evil Hitler and the Nazis, fer crissakes, and touches on the liberation of the concentration camps, it seems to me that the same moral high ground is missing in a depiction of the Pacific war.

The photo above (taken by me) is from the massive Soviet war memorial at Treptow, outside Berlin. Built on the scene of Soviet triumph against the Nazis, and hosted for decades by the now obsolete satellite regime of the German Democratic Republic, the memorial glorifies the Russian military machine. Surrounding an eternal flame there are many concrete panels like the one shown, all with depictions of heroically unstoppable Soviet legions, with occasional hovering Communist icons like the floating head of Lenin shown here. The memorial is stirring to visit: and it's true that millions of Soviet citizens were killed in the Nazi onslaught; and millions heroically braved incredible hardship to push the fascist forces back and liberate eastern Europe and the Russian homeland. I'm well aware of the various historical positions on the left about this conflict: my own pacifism and anti-imperialism is certainly challenged by the nihilistic brutality of Nazism. I suppose we're let off the hook by history and what actually happened. I think it would require a certain amount of pretzel logic to suggest it didn't matter that Nazism was defeated.

But I'm left with much less certainty about the war between Japan and the various European and American colonial powers. It's true that Japan was allied with the European fascists. And it's true that in China and Korea Japan acted with brutality and a colonial mentality. But in much of South East Japan bolstered anti-colonial independence forces. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, India, and other places the Japanese were throwing off American, English or Dutch rule for Japanese sponsorship of supposedly local independent governments. Japanese imperialism, as a new player on the stage that was making up for lost time with aggressive military force, but was, say, Japanese occupation of the Philippines so much worse than Spanish or American occupation of the Philippines?

I read one reviewer of "The Pacific" say that watching war movies once made him feel patriotic, causing him to entertain fantasies of running off to join the army, even now so many years later. But to me the miniseries emphasizes not the heroism of the fight, but the futility, the utter waste of human life. Here young Americans fight young Japanese on islands they had never previously heard of so that Japan could dislodge England and America as master of the East and exploiter of the region's resources. Was what Japan was doing so much worse than the self-entitlement exercised by the western colonialists? When you consider the role of Europe and America in destabilizing China in the first half of the 20th-century, it may have been less militarily brutal than Japan's attacks on China, but it was not occupying any better moral place. The righteousness of the Chinese struggle against foreign domination ultimately needed to vanquish the Western powers as well as Japan; and the fighting there was not over til the end of the forties as the war of liberation against Japan was transformed into a war of liberation against the Kuomintang.

Indeed it's hard to separate American fury against Japan from American racism. The Japanese were demonized and dehumanized in American consciousness in a way that the Germans were not. And many have speculated that experimental weapons of mass destruction, the atomic bombs, would not have been used against European civilians as readily as they were used against Japanese ones. If the destruction of Japanese militarism was ultimately a good thing for the Japanese nation, it's hard not to think it would be better still if all those Japanese who died...hadn't.

From the heyday of Soviet propaganda and socialist graphic art in the 1930s come these Russian stamps marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, then just called "Great." Showing bombs falling on a city; the flight of refugees, and ranks of strong young men turned into cripples these images get at some of the stupidity and futility of that war. It was popular rejection of the vast human waste of that war that sparked the waves of social transformation that marked much of the twentieth century. Both the good changes and the bad can be laid at the feet of that war, from the revolutionaries who rid Europe of a handful of repressive monarchies to the reactionaries and revanchists who were invigorated to a new level of military adventurism. If as historians we can now look back at the Second World War and see similar transformative events, I for one can not forget about the terrible cost in human life. And I refuse to quantify the loss of American life as more tragic than the loss of Japanese life.

Are we beyond all this now? Or how many smaller-scale local but brutal wars does it take to add up to a new global conflict? In today's post-ideological world, aren't we back to the sort of mindless brutality of self-interest exemplified by the First World War? Where is the new egalitarian or pacifist consciousness that will prevent the next global conflagration? Does war porn like HBO's "Pacific" turn people into pacifists or turn them into willing cannon fodder for the next American military adventure? Perhaps the reason this TV series isn't as compelling as the previous one is that stripped of the veneer of fighting the inhuman Nazi war machine, the paroxysm of violence in the islands of the Pacific is revealed to be pointless.

There's a message in the past; we ignore it at our own risk.


  1. I'm mostly a very moderate social democrat, but the subject of war turns me into a ranting anarchist. War proves one thing and one thing only. That the masters of war care nothing at all for us. Real people thrive on community and family and place. We live by our common labors and in doing so we build a world. The whole point of war is to destroy everything that makes up human community in the name of some fucking idiot abstraction about nations or ideologies. Yes, people, particularly men, will probably always fight among themselves but that's not what war is about. War is a small group of people deliberately destroying society so that they can loot the ruins.
    I suppose war also turns me into a deep pacifist.
    The word verification is "minionoi". Sounds like a cross between minions and hoi polloi. The people against whom all wars are waged.

  2. War is a small group of people deliberately destroying society so that they can loot the ruins.

    I'm going to quote you on that. Beautifully said.