I’ll occasionally tear up in movies, but I cried like a baby in Saving Private Ryan. My wife’s Grandpa Wigton flew bombers in Europe during World II but was called home after his two brothers died in combat. I was completely alone in the theater, catching a mid-week matinee. I paced the floor in front of the screen in the tenser parts of the movie, but the scene that knocked me out was just after one of the most brutal accounts of war I’d ever witnessed: the opening battle on the beaches of Normandy. The film cut to a non-descript war office back in the States where a secretary realized that three of the letters she was processing were addressed to the same family. Three brothers had died, and one remained in Europe. I was wrecked.
I’ve never been to war, and at 38, I likely never will. But I’m drawn to accounts of war—the sacrifice, violence, purpose, the bonds formed among soldiers, the monotony, the fear, the tragedy. One of Paste’s regular contributors, David Langness, is a veteran of Vietnam and an expert in war fiction, having read more than 400 accounts of Vietnam alone. He says, “All great war books are also anti-war books.” The same can be said for movies and TV, and after three episodes, HBO’s The Pacific—based on memoirs by Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale)—seems to be great war television.
Moreso than the wars that came after, World War II has been fodder for stories of unvarnished heroism. The justness of its cause has rarely been questioned. Germany and Japan were intent on conquest, and the U.S. and its allies were fighting for freedom. Many of the films that came after glorified not only the bravery of WWII vets, but war itself. More recent films have made the effort to capture the utter hell our soldiers went through. A few, like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, even gave us the perspective of the Japanese soldiers that were always either killing or dying in other movies.
The Pacific begins with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, a group stranded when its Navy supply ships were sunk by Japanese forces. Low on ammo and without reinforcements, they fought to secure a strategic airfield the Japanese hoped to use to control the skies as far south as Australia. It was a key victory for the early war efforts in the Pacific. The men were welcomed as heroes in Melbourne and their story was told in every American newspaper.
And it’s this contrast between the misery of war and the resulting adulation that the show seems interested in exploring. Gunnery Sargent John Basilone (Jon Seder) and his small unit held off thousands of Japanese troops and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He left the Pacific theater for a war bond tour of the U.S. But fate was not as kind to his comrade who killed in action on Guadalcanal, and the role of war hero was one that Basilone never felt comfortable playing.
War creates widows and orphans and changes men and women irreparably. In The Pacific, a father tells his son that his biggest fears aren’t for his son’s body as they are for his soul—that men can come back from war empty.
Langness processed his post-traumatic stress with stories, and The Pacific is the primarily the story of two writers in the trenches. In addition to letters home, Leckie wrote poems while stranded on Guadalcanal. Those who endured the agonies of war need their stories told—and told with honesty that neither glorifies nor ignores the realities of battle. Grandpa Wigton lived a long life as an optometrist in Butler, Penn, but he lived it without his older brothers. We need to remember the heroes of World War II and we need to do everything we can to prevent our young men and women from suffering a similar fate.
Josh Jackson is co-founder and editor of Paste. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshjackson.