During last night's debut of The Pacific, the new World War II epic on HBO, one scene on Guadalcanal stood out - if only for its meditative power.
As the Marines sort out the Japanese bodies after a night skirmish, they come upon a live one. Two medics, being decent life-affirming Americans, rush over to lift the wounded enemy to his feet and haul him away for treatment - whereupon the soldier detonates a grenade hidden in his hand, blowing himself and his helpers to pieces. The American boys, dumfounded and outraged, scream racial epithets at the now-decimated suicide bomber. Meanwhile, an unscathed, unarmed Japanese survivor emerges from the jungle and rails boastfully at the heavily armed Americans, who proceed to use him as target practice, wounding him repeatedly in order to keep him alive and prolong the sport - until one of our protagonists, Pfc. Robert Leckie, perhaps seeking to avenge the deaths of comrades the night before, or (more likely) simply seeking to do the "right" thing, stops the grotesque game by dropping the soldier with a fatal shot. As Leckie later ruminates in a letter home, "There are things that men can do to each other that are sobering to the soul."
The Pacific will undoubtedly enlighten millions of ahistorical Americans who view World War II largely through the lens of D-Day and the liberation of Europe. In truth, the war in the East was far more brutal. Not even Hitler could rival the Japanese as conquerers. Hitler enslaved 225 million people in four time zones; the militarists in Tokyo subsumed 400 million people over a span of seven times zones and 20 million square miles (including water). And unlike regular German troops, the Japanese considered surrender an act of shame. As historian Max Hastings points out in Retribution, his new and indispensible book, the American casualty rate in that war theater "was three and a half times greater than that of Europe." Say hello to the 115-degree heat on the tiny island of Peleliu, where 1,950 Americans perished in a siege that military experts, even at the time, considered strategetically unimportant.
But the miniseries - Episode One is available online - will be more than a mere educational tool. Over the next 10 weeks, it'll be impossible to watch this grim ode to the "good war" without pondering the aforementioned line from Robert Leckie, and placing it in a 21st-century context.
We obviously - rightly - see ourselves today as the good guys fighting an endless twilight war against an implacable terrorist enemy that refuses to surrender; the question is, how should we grapple with the inevitable moral ambiguities? How can we wage this war - in fact, can we wage this war - without compromising ourselves in ways "that are sobering to the soul," and that indeed could compromise the humanistic self-image of American exceptionalism?
Historian Douglas Brinkley writes this week that the miniseries tackles "age-old and current questions about the barbarity of war: How can Americans ask our young men and women to indiscriminately kill a shadowy enemy and then return to their ordered Coca-Cola lives stateside?" (The Hurt Locker had an answer to that question. The bomb expert got so hooked on the violence that he could't abide living stateside, so he went back to Iraq for more.)
But the questions prompted by The Pacific are not merely about the troops. Even as we watch these HBO combatants descend into hell while fighting to hang onto their humanity, we may be tempted to think again about the disputes that plague us today. What's the best way to adjudicate captured terrorists? What's the best way to question them? Is the most effective way always the moral way? Is it fatally "sobering to the soul" for Americans to launch covert assassination plots, as evidenced by the revelations this morning about the use of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Americans, of course, are already polarized in their responses to those kind of questions, and no doubt this polarization will persist, and even become more sharpened over the next 10 weeks, among those who view The Pacific as contemporary metaphor. There are no easy answers in this ongoing debate about ends and means. But the good news, at least, is that thanks to HBO's efforts, millions of people will no longer be humming the kitschy Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes from South Pacific.
Who can resist this piece about "Johnny?" Not me.