The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"The Pacific" controversy

Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s “The Pacific”

Louis Proyect

HBO’s The Pacific is the latest installment in an ongoing project launched by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks to pay tribute to what newscaster Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation”, in other words the combat forces whose victories in Europe and Asia helped propel the U.S. to the status of number one imperial power.

In keeping with a proper post-Vietnam sensibility, Hollywood liberals such as Spielberg and Hanks would never dream of churning out the kind of flag-waving propaganda that was made during WWII, some of which involved Communist Party members. For example, the 1945 Back to Bataan starring John Wayne is filled with blood-curdling anti-Japanese racism despite being having a screenplay written by Ben Barzman, a Communist, and directed by Edward Dmytryk, another Communist (who would go on to name names.)

Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks’s initial foray into this genre, was anxious to depict the Americans as the “good guys” but not in the clumsy, rah-rah fashion of the pre-Vietnam war era. In my review, I noted:

Standing above this film like a canopy are a whole set of assumptions about American “decency.” Not only is General George Marshall decent enough to rescue a single GI from the fighting, the GI’s themselves are also more decent than the despicable Nazis. There is one plot device that drives this point home. Hank’s men have captured a German soldier. They want to kill him but Hanks says that this would not be right and sends him off. In the climax of the film, this soldier turns up again and plunges a knife into one of the “good guys” in hand-to-hand combat. After he is captured once again, a GI shoots him in cold blood. The moral of the story is that it is forgivable to shoot Germans in this manner because they are embodiments of pure evil, just as they were in Schindler’s Tale.

In 2001, Spielberg and Hanks teamed up to produce Band of Brothers, an HBO series based on Stephen Ambrose’s book about the war in Europe. Not having cable TV at the time, I was not able to see it. At some point, I might rent it from Netflix out of curiosity—especially since my father was involved in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, an important episode in the series.

A review of Ambrose’s book that appeared in the July 13, 1992 Washington Post gives you some idea of how far he had gone in the direction of de-romanticizing “the good war”. This sounds like something straight out of Inglourious Basterds:

When, at the end of the war, Easy Company got up to Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border, it heard stories about high-ranking German officials who were likely candidates for war trials. One of them, the reputed commander of a slave labor camp, was living nearby on a farm.

Speirs called in 1st Sergeant Lynch . . . , [and] then gave his order: ‘Take Moone, Liebgott and Sisk, find [the Nazi] and eliminate him.’ . . . They got to the farm and without a struggle took the Nazi prisoner. . . . They prodded the man out of the vehicle. Liebgott drew his pistol and shot him twice.

The prisoner began screaming. He turned and ran up the hill. Lynch ordered Moone to shoot him.

“You shoot him,” Moone replied. “The war is over.”

“Skinny Sisk stepped forward, leveled his M-1 at the fleeing man and shot him dead.” It was murder but it didn’t matter.

Of course, it is a lot easier for the bourgeois media to accept this account uncritically since nobody loves a Nazi. But it is a bit harder to work up the same kind of frenzy when it comes to the Japanese, whose image was softened considerably by Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a movie that had the temerity to treat them as not much different than the Americans bent on murdering them.

While Pacific makes no effort to include the Japanese perspective, the U.S. Marines are about as unglamorous as any that have been seen in an American movie. Spielberg and Hanks made the somewhat risky decision to cast the war in the Pacific as a prelude to the current “war on terror”, something that has enraged tea party types:

Comments actor and producer Tom Hanks made in interviews regarding the conflict with the Japanese during World War II are sparking controversy.

In an interview with Time magazine, Hanks, who starred in the World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” and produced both “Band of Brothers” and the current HBO series “The Pacific” with Stephen Spielberg, compared the Japanese conflict to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods,” he told the magazine. “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?”

Hanks brought up the comparison again while promoting “The Pacific” during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“‘The Pacific’ is coming out now, where it represents a war that was of racism and terror. And where it seemed as though the only way to complete one of these battles on one of these small specks of rock in the middle of nowhere was to – I’m sorry – kill them all. And, um, does that sound familiar to what we might be going through today? So it’s– is there anything new under the sun? It seems as if history keeps repeating itself.”

The remarks have stirred a backlash from conservatives.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said Hanks is trying to “inject racism” into both wars.

“We had to kill the Japanese because the Japanese wouldn’t surrender, period…and the jihadists, if they were Thais, Burmese, and they attacked us, we’d be doing the same thing today,” O’Reilly said on Saturday.

Karl Rove, in an interview with O’Reilly on Monday, said that Hanks is “impervious to rational discussion.”

I have now watched the first half of The Pacific and confess that I find it rather unremarkable as drama. The series alternates between mundane personal drama involving the Marines on leave as they bed Australian women and battle scenes that don’t begin to approach the excitement of Saving Private Ryan, a rather accomplished bit of war porn. Most of the battle scenes take place at night and don’t involve hand-to-hand combat, a sine qua non for this sort of business. They also utilize the dubious “shaky camera” technique that smart directors should have dumped long ago. I also wonder if budget constraints forced HBO to forgo the casting of hundreds of Asian extras. Who knows?

There have been two major battles dramatized in the series. The first is Guadalcanal, where the U.S. made the first effort to dislodge Japanese forces from an occupied island since Pearl Harbor. The teleplay is adapted from Robert Leckie’s memoir Helmet for My Pillow and includes him as a character, played by James Bridge Dale.

Leckie is a totally uninteresting character who serves mainly to illustrate the point that war is hell. After fighting in Guadalcanal, he has a bad case of post-traumatic stress and a case of enuresis (uncontrollable urination) that sends him to a hospital on Banika Island where he meets a fellow marine who has been locked up in the mental ward for trying to steal an airplane to fly back to the U.S. This is not exactly John Wayne territory.

The next major battle takes place on Peleliu Island and is seen from the point of view of another Marine private named Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) who also wrote a memoir titled With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, portions of which can be read on Google Books.

In the last episode, number five, that deals with the landing at Peleliu, Sledge—the son of a family that had officers fighting for the Confederacy—is aghast at a fellow Marine plucking the gold teeth from a dead Japanese soldier. If you, like me, had heard stories about this being done to dead Jews at places like Auschwitz, you will share Sledge’s sense of disgust. He says nothing in the HBO movie, but had this to say in his book:

I hadn’t budged an inch or said a word, just stood glued to the spot almost as in a trance. The corpses were sprawled where the veterans had dragged them around to get into their pants and pockets. Would I become this casual and callous about enemy dead? I wondered. Would the war dehumanize me so that I, too, could “field strip” enemy dead with such nonchalance? The time soon came when it wouldn’t bother me a bit.

And well it wouldn’t. After all, what these Marines were doing was simply what their nation was doing on a scale writ large.

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