Ruminations on HBO’s “The Pacific,” the War against Japan, and Historical Revisionism

On Tuesday evening, 16 March, the first episode of the much-anticipated Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg production, “The Pacific,” debuted on HBO. I don’t know what the initial viewership was, but I do know that HBO had been intensively promoting the new series for months. From the very beginning of this promotional campaign, however, this production about the Pacific War had been billed as being a genuine departure from the earlier, superbly-realized Hanks-Spielberg miniseries for HBO, “Band of Brothers.” This project, it was claimed, was going to break with many of the forms of the earlier, highly-successful wartime narrative. The war against Japan, producer Tom Hanks argued, had been extraordinary in its cruelty, mercilessness, and ferocity. For this reason, the actor-producer continued, “The Pacific” had been envisioned as something very different from the previous story of American paratroopers in Europe; in short, it could not and would not simply be “Band of Brothers” with sandy beaches and coconut palms.

These initial comments and the kerfuffle over Tom Hanks’ attempt to link the current war against militant Islam with wartime events in the Pacific almost seventy years ago, I confess, worried me a little; but the early previews of the series, like its subject matter, nonetheless intrigued me. Thus, by the time the first episode finally aired, I had been looking forward to this historical docudrama for some time. And not just because I thought that “Band of Brothers” had been extremely well done, which I had; but also because the producers claimed that this new HBO project was based on the actual, unvarnished wartime experiences of several real marines. This was, I thought, an idea that was long overdue: the true stories of the men who fought in the Pacific needed a contemporary and honest retelling, particularly since so many years had passed since the end of World War II, and those who had been lucky enough to survive the many harrowing, bloody island battles against the Japanese were rapidly passing from the scene.

Maj. James Stewart is presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross by Col Ramsey Potts for combat over Germany, 1944

The first episode of "The Pacific," not surprisingly, begins with a portion of President Roosevelt's iconic "Date that will Live in Infamy" speech announcing the war with Japan. With the president's words fading with the opening credits, the narrative quickly moves on to introduce and then to follow the separate but converging stories of a handful of ordinary young Americans — each from different backgrounds and from different parts of the country — who, like the rest of their countrymen, are suddenly catapulted into an unwanted war by the underhanded and "dastardly" Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941. This is, perhaps, one of the weakest elements of the early narrative. The tone conveyed by “The Pacific” about the attitudes of everyday Americans towards their own unanticipated and unwanted involvement in a global war is both overly lugubrious and strangely detached. There is no real attempt in this first installment of the series to convey the national outrage that animated every aspect of American life following the sneak attack on Hawaii; no sense of the tectonic shift in popular attitudes from New York City to Hollywood, and from Fort Lauderdale to Detroit that accompanied the nation’s rapid mobilization for the life and death struggle in which it now found itself. Instead, in “The Pacific,” things seem to plod along with an odd air of normalcy: people go to church, they speak soberly and regretfully about the sacrifices that must be made, but nowhere do they speak with convincing passion about the righteousness of the war against Japan, or of their commitment to an ultimate victory. Of course, there are nine episodes yet to air, so this may change; nonetheless, it seems odd that the series, so far at least, fails to display the galvanic spirit of national unity and commitment to victory that led even Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, and Jimmy Stewart to abandon their flourishing careers in movies to enlist in the crusade against America’s totalitarian enemies. Only the character who plays legendary Marine Colonel Lewis Puller speaks about the justice and the vital necessity of the task ahead, and of the terrible retribution that the Japanese, having chosen war, must now endure.

US marines landing on Guadacanal

Once the first episode moves on to “Operation Watchtower” — the invasion of the Solomon’s in August of 1942 — it rapidly regains both its momentum and its historical footing. The ordinary marine’s eye view of the Battle for Guadalcanal is generally convincing and emotionally engaging: the helplessness, seasickness, and fear of an amphibious run into an enemy beach; the oppressive, nerve-racking nature of jungle warfare; and the violent combat sequence that takes place near the end of this first episode are, as was the case with “Band of Brothers,” all harrowingly realistic. However, even here there are a few minor problems with the story. First, despite the best efforts of the production’s make-up crew, the marine riflemen all continue to look far too healthy as the campaign for Guadalcanal wears on. In reality, the combination of tropical heat and debilitating diseases tended to turn the ordinary marine — once he had been on the line for any length of time — into a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow of his former self. Malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and infections from minor wounds all combined, in fact, to inflict more casualties on the American forces than combat with the enemy. This is what made the fighting in the Pacific so grindingly miserable: not only did the ordinary marine have to contend with a ruthless and implacable foe, he also had to deal with the truly awful conditions under which he lived and fought. To be fair, these are all relatively minor criticisms when balanced against the dramatic sweep of the whole series. However, another far more important hint of future trouble in the narrative of “The Pacific” emerges near the end of the series’ first installment: that of historical revisionism.

When the sun rises on the first morning following their climactic firefight with the Japanese, the surviving marines in the story are greeted by an amazing and grisly sight: hundreds of enemy dead blanket the jungle floor and the open beach near their defensive position. This is the aftermath of the desperate battle of the preceding night. It is also the point at which a disturbing moral ambivalence begins to emerge out of the imagery and dialogue of the series. This detour into moral ambiguity begins when two Americans are killed — in what appears, to the other marines nearby, to be an incomprehensible act of duplicity — by the same wounded Japanese soldier that they are attempting to unselfishly help. This tragic and shocking event is followed almost immediately by an oddly contrived scene in which the murdered good Samaritans’ fellow marines are conveniently presented with an opportunity to torment an unarmed and helpless Japanese soldier. The unlucky victim is repeatedly wounded by different jeering riflemen until, disgusted by the pointless cruelty of his fellow marines, one of the series’ protagonists shoots the enemy soldier to end his suffering. Putting aside the fact that the M1903 Springfield Rifle (later replaced by the M1 Garand) fired a 30-06 round, and that minor flesh wounds from this rifle, because of the ballistic characteristics of its ammunition, were a virtual impossibility: even a bullet impact to the shoulder or arm — because of the tissue damage and hydrostatic shock caused by the impacting bullet — would have been enough to knock the hapless Japanese soldier right off his feet. There is another, more troubling aspect to this imagery as well.

Destroyed SBD after air attack on Henderson Field, Guadacanal, 1942

The not-so-subtle message from these two back-to-back scenes is clear: the Japanese and American fighting men who faced each other during the Pacific War — in terms of their cultural biases, battlefield behavior, and basic morality — were essentially the same. Tom Hanks is not the first person to spark recent controversy by talking about World War II in these terms. In fact, this argument on behalf of ‘moral equivalency’ and the shared guilt of both the Axis and the Allies for the millions of dead, and the enormous destruction and suffering caused by the Second War has become steadily more main-stream in the last few years. Writers as different as political pundit, Patrick Buchanan, and ‘counterfactual’ historian, Niall Ferguson, have both proposed variations on this revisionist theme. Given this fact, it was probably only a matter of time before some version of this alternative view of history should find its way into the script for an HBO miniseries. And despite the fact that “The Pacific” is mainly intended for entertainment, this kind of ‘hyper-modern’ historical message is both deceptive and pernicious, nonetheless. Of course, to understand the potential harm that can come out of such a theory, it is necessary to understand it, at least in its broad outlines.

Patrol on Guadacanal

In simplest terms, the ‘moral equivalency’ historical thesis proposes that World War II should be viewed from the standpoints of both the Axis leadership and the Allied heads of government who opposed them. Thus, at its core, this more nuanced view of world events is rooted in a cynical, barely-concealed admiration for ruthless ‘realpolitik’ writ large. History, proponents of this approach argue, is the product of the actions of political actors, and those actors can be understood purely in terms of their national geopolitical interests. Wars, they continue, arise when one or more political actors ignore their national self-interest in favor of some other consideration. Moreover, because wars, by their very nature, are terrible in their brutality and destructiveness, it is both pointless and dishonest to weigh the wartime actions of one side against those of the other other on any kind of 'moral scale'.

USMC Map Guadalcanal

Thus, in addressing the lead-up to the war in Europe in 1939, the revisionist argument typically goes something like this: the Versailles Treaty created the necessary preconditions for the Second World War; if the victorious Allies had been more solicitous of Imperial Germany in 1919, then the Weimar Republic would not have collapsed and Hitler would never have gained power. However, once the Nazis did come to control Germany, the western democracies should have accommodated Hitler and allowed the Third Reich to expand, unimpeded, at the expense of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. Where Mussolini’s African and Balkan ambitions for a reborn Roman Empire fit into this calculus is seldom discussed. In any case, this cringing, non-confrontational style of diplomacy, it is suggested, would have encouraged the two great dictatorships on the European Continent (Germany and Russia) to expend their blood and treasure against each other, rather than against the studiously neutral nations of the west. As to the ruthlessly authoritarian and 'quaint' racial theories of the Nazis: things might have been bad for the populations of Germany’s newly-conquered territories and really bad for a few million Jews, Gypsies, and other racial undesirables; on the other hand, the rest (or at least some) of Europe would have been spared a world war. And besides, the argument goes: the Germans did not even formally institute the legal and operational underpinnings for the ‘Final Solution’ until the Wannasee Conference in January of 1942. By which time, it should be noted, almost every Jew in Poland and the Baltic States had already been exterminated. Nonetheless, the revisionists still contend that had Churchill not been such a stubborn anti-Nazi and determined warmonger, there might never even have been a Jewish holocaust.

Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo

The hyper-modern view of pre-war Imperial Japan, not surprisingly, tends to hold to the same general themes as that of its European counterpart. Thus, war with Japan, it is argued, had its origins (at least partly) in the post-World War I redistribution of Germany’s colonial possessions in the Pacific. Japan’s political and military leadership (really the same thing, by the late 1920's), rightly or wrongly felt that they had been slighted by the western Allies. Thus, the argument goes: a future war was made inevitable because of unreasonable and ill-advised opposition on the part of the western colonial powers to Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia. The Empire of Japan desperately needed resources that it did not control domestically to fuel a modern industrial economy; therefore, it was only natural that Japan’s leaders look for ways to bring those resources under Imperial control. Moreover, Japan’s subsequent invasion and interminable war against the Chinese was basically an Asian matter and no business of either Europe or the United States. Clearly, western opposition to Japan’s legitimate aspirations were inextricably tied, counterfactual historians theorize, to racism and to an absolute commitment on the part of the western colonial nations to preventing Imperial Japan from attaining the ‘Great Power’ status to which it was entitled because of its poweful, modern military. To these revisionists, the responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor, seen in purely geopolitical terms, lay not with Tokyo, but with Washington, D.C. and London. If oil, scrap iron, and rubber had not been embargoed by the west, and reasonable accommodations had been pursued with the government of Hideki Tojo, then the carnage of the Pacific war could have been averted to the benefit of everyone. Everyone that is, except, perhaps, for the millions of Chinese and Koreans already living under Japanese military occupation in 1941. Inevitably, when considering the final outcome of Japan’s unsuccessful war in the Pacific, the most tiresome and persistent critics of U.S. policies before and during World War II always turn to the American use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These final devastating attacks — occurring, as they did, after Japan’s navy had been sunk and its air force driven from the skies — were, the critics say, totally unnecessary; instead, these final attacks were premeditated acts of racial vengeance: the final terrifying expressions of absolute domination by a white America over a prostrate and defenseless Asian enemy.

It remains to be seen, of course, how far down the road of ‘revisionist history’ Hanks’ and Spielberg’s “The Pacific” actually travels. Certainly, an honest attempt, by the series, to depict the common humanity shared by the ordinary American marines and their Japanese adversaries is really not at issue. What is at issue, however, is whether the story told by “The Pacific” describes, along with the inevitable acts of violence, mayhem, and cruelty committed by soldiers of every side in every war, the real history of the war in the Pacific and of the men who fought it. We already know that the typical Japanese soldier had a mother and father, and perhaps a wife and children; these facts make him human, but they do not make him a victim. Nor does this ordinariness excuse the very real atrocities that were, with dreadful regularity, committed under the banner of the 'Rising Sun'. This is, I think, an important distinction to remember.

Japanese MG Crew

In one of his many recent interviews about his new HBO miniseries, Tom Hanks suggested that racism was an important factor in how the US military approached and fought the war against Japan. Awkward as it is to consider now, this is, seen in the proper historical context, a perfectly valid point. Was there a racial component in the attitudes of many of the Americans who battled the Japanese in the Pacific, between 1941 and 1945? Most certainly there was; however, much of this animus was relatively new and had its origin in the nature of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Were the attitudes of the typical Japanese soldier and his leaders also guided by a cruel, unbending, and merciless warrior creed of their own? Anyone who knows anything about the ancient Japanese code of Bushido knows that the answer to this question is most assuredly, yes. Moreover, this medieval approach to warfare not only justified the mistreatment, torture, and even killing of prisoners, it virtually mandated it. Without the Japanese tradition of Bushido, would there even have been a Bataan "Death March?" Moreover, anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Japanese history during the 1920’s and 30’s also knows that militarism — closely-wedded to Emperor worship and a particularly noxious form of xenophobic racism — already deeply embedded in Japanese culture since the Seventeenth century, had become even stronger by the time of Pearl Harbor. For those who doubt this fact, they have only to examine the brutal history of the Japanese occupations of Korea, China, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and beyond to see that this Japanese sense of racial superiority and divinely-sanctioned privilege was pervasive; moreover, that it was directed with just as much ruthlessness and ferocity against other Asians as it was against the deeply-resented Europeans and Americans.

Col Lewis B "Chesty" Puller, Commander 1st Marine Infantry Regiment

Celebrities, even fundamentally decent, well-meaning ones like Mr. Hanks should probably, as the old adage goes: “tend a little more closely to their own knitting.” Playing an infantry officer in a war movie does not make you an expert on small unit tactics, and producing a historical miniseries, does not necessarily make you a knowledgeable historical commentator. The Academy Award winning actor suggested at one point to a TV interviewer that the Japanese wanted to kill us (meaning the Americans and British), but that we wanted to annihilate them; he was only partly right. In one of the early scenes in the first episode of “The Pacific,” the future ‘most decorated marine in USMC history’, Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller explains to his young marine NCO’s what to expect from the coming war in the Pacific, and more importantly, what they and their fellow marines are actually fighting to accomplish. Yes, it was necessary to annihilate and, in the process, utterly humiliate the adherents of Japanese militarism; but it was the belief system and those who preserved and continued it that had to be destroyed; not the Japanese people, who, in many ways, were as much victims of Japanese Imperialism as the faceless foreigners that their sons killed or enslaved overseas. This, I think, is where Mr. Hanks goes a little off-track. The Japan of today exists precisely because the American occupiers did not want to annihilate the Japanese people, or to destroy their culture; instead, they simply wanted to expunge those elements from Japan's martial traditions that led the country, and its hitherto powerless citizens, into almost two decades of continuous warfare.

Close action on Guadacanal

According to the previews for “The Pacific” the ten-part series will conclude its narrative arc with the story of the Battle of Okinawa. Nothing could be more fitting. In the protracted battle for this Japanese island, over 12,500 American soldiers, sailors, and marines were killed, and another 38,000 were wounded. The defenders lost somewhere around 110,000 killed; interestingly, for the first time in the war, Japanese soldiers began to surrender in large numbers; in fact, over 7,500 members of the island’s garrison laid down their arms rather than die for the Emperor. Tragically, however, along with the Japanese soldiers who died defending Okinawa, perhaps as many as 100,000 terrified civilians were either convinced or compelled by fanatical representatives of their own military to commit suicide rather than to accept American occupation. As a point of comparison, 60,000 to 80,000 Japanese died at Nagasaki as a direct result of the second American atomic bomb. Six days after the mushroom cloud appeared over Nagasaki, on 15 August 1945, the government of the Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. The timing of the Japanese surrender was no coincidence. So, for that vociferous band of counterfactual historians, anti-war revisionists, and even uninformed TV personalities who, like Jon Stewart, self-righteously accuse President Truman of 'war crimes' because of the president's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, I offer only a single closing question: based on the number of people from both sides — civilian and military — who perished during the battle for Okinawa: how many Japanese and Americans would have had to die before the Japanese Home Islands were completely in Allied hands?


  • LeMay said it best: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal."

    What was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions in early 1940 (a British Admiral refused to shell a German position in Norway due to the great potential of civilian casualties) became de-riguer in 1944-45.

    (FWIW like you I see nothing wrong with this and a utilitarian analysis tells me the USAAF's area bombing, including the two nukes, were in all likelihood necessary if not sufficient to getting Japan to surrender to our terms cleanly, as opposed to the grinding mess we had to go through in Germany).

    A lot of blood flowed under the bridge to get the national psyche there. The brutal bombing of The Blitz -- as Germany's ally and partner in crime, Japan received our enmity in transference.

    The suicidal resistance we encountered every step of the way. The brutal mistreatment of our POWs and our Philippine friends we fully discovered in late 1944.

    The payback we wanted to exact for Japan's brutal prosecution of their attacks on China.

    A lot of our killing of Japanese civilians was done not regretfully but rather eagerly.

    I think you have a comic-book view of the reality of WW2.

    There was great racism directed against Japanese in the US prior to WW2. California and the US had passed an exclusion act against Japanese immigrants in the 1920s, something the 1941 diplomacy was looking at repealing as part of the reaching a modus vivendi.

    The Japanese farmer's boy who did the bulk of the fighting and dying didn't know bushido from Bluto. His officers were inculcated in this tradition, they beat this into the NCOs, which in turn beat the idea of total obedience to the divine chain of command into their charges.

    My grandfather was born in 1911 in rural Washington and he didn't rush out on Dec 8 to enlist. He finally did in 1943 as the Marines were getting pretty beat up.

    FWIW, I think everyone was a victim in WW2. The Japanese pro-war militants, for being pigheaded fools trapped in their glory-seeking such that they failed to fully weigh the attendant risks of their actions, and everyone forced to fight and die for their country, and the millions of civilian dead from Burma to Peiping.

    It was a crazy time, a time when revisionists thought they could bring back the 19th century norms of truculent politics into the mid-20th.

    I don't think the current friction we have with the islamic world is anything close to this, any more than the Irish question was like WW2.

    There may be a billion muslims, but this makes the situation more stable I think, over the long run.

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