Monday, May 17, 2010

"The Pacific"

We watched the final episode of "The Pacific" on HBO last night, watched Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie come home to their families and futures, watched Merriell "Snafu" Shelton climb off a troop train in the New Orleans twilight and leave Sledge, his brother in arms through so much horror, sleeping, making no goodbyes.

Perhaps like others I have grown weary of the "greatest generation," even though my late father was part of it, fighting in the Pacific Theater.

I have watched "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" and Ken Burns' fine PBS series "The War," and I grew up watching John Wayne in the movies and "Combat" on TV. I have largely passed over the many books and weepy Tom Brokaw/Tom Hanks retrospectives on the men and women who fought and died in World War II.

"The Pacific" went a long way toward changing that. It was a remarkable piece, remarkable television, a relentless 10-week saga that conveyed the horror of infantry combat in a fashion I had never seen or even imagined.

The recreations of the battles at Guadacanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Iwo Jima come at the viewer at the speed of light and are nothing less than terrifying. A series of fine writers, directors and actors deliver the viewer into a world of bone-rattling tension played out in endless, teeming rain and jungle and on sun-baked atolls riddled with lethal caves and danger.

For the viewer, at least for this one, "The Pacific" peels back any lingering romance about wartime, pounding away at the point that in these moments the veneer of civilization is all but gone.

Snafu Shelton's character (played by a fascinating actor named Rami Malek) is equal parts golem and hero, a young man thrust into a reality so violent and uncertain that his amoral pose and boundless cynicism keeps him alive, or so he seems to believe.

There is a scene where Shelton talks idly about the fortunes of war with Sledge, his eyes as dead as a shark's, and you realize that as he chats he is tossing coral pebbles into the open skull of a dead Japanese soldier.

Sledge wrote a book, "With the Old Breed," as did Leckie, a newspaperman. These memoirs from the 1st Marine Division formed the core of the narrative for "The Pacific," as did the better-known and yet mostly forgotten story of Sgt. John Basilone, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor at Guadacanal and, after time spent stateside selling war bonds, made his way back to combat in time for the brutal landing at Iwo Jima.

Studs Terkel interviewed Sledge for his book 1984 book "The Good War." Sledge told him: "To me, there were two different wars. There was the war of the guy on the front lines. You don't come off until you are wounded or killed. Or, if lucky, relieved ... The man up front puts his life on the line day after day after day to the point of utter hopelessness."

That's the war "The Pacific," produced by Hanks and Steven Spielberg and myriad others, deliver.

Sledge became a college professor in his native Alabama. Leckie went back to the newspaper trade. They married, lived out their lives, died the same year, 2001. There is a statue of John Basilone in his New Jersey home town, and a Navy destroyer is named for him.

Snafu Shelton, a gambling man, fixed air conditioners in rural Louisiana and by all accounts had a hard life, though it could not have been harder than the horrors he endured on those tiny islands more than 60 years ago.

Sledge, his companion across the killing ground of the airfield at Peleliu, in the caves on Okinawa and on the slow train home, was a pallbearer at his funeral. Their war will stay with me for a long time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I Gave At The Office

Back in early 1976 I was running a bar in Washington D.C. The Class Reunion was a saloon for grown ups, a gathering place for reporters, lawyers, politicos, PR types and, after hours, other bar people and people I let stay after hours.

One night as I was conducting a 4 a.m. seminar on the state of American politics, a Democratic Party lawyer and friend of Oklahoma populist Sen. Fred Roy Harris shamed me into writing a $100 check to Harris' long forgotten presidential campaign. The next morning - well, afternoon - the lawyer called me at home and offered to give me the check back.

$100 was a fair amount of money in those days (and is again, as it turns out). But I had blathered on until sunrise so I told him to cash the check and good luck to Fred Harris and his lovely wife LaDonna.

It was the first time I had ever given money to a politician.

Fred and LaDonna didn't have much luck electorally. Jimmy Carter wound up in the White House and I went on a 24-year hiatus from giving money to the political class. It was called journalism.

Journalists don't offer up campaign contributions, as a general rule, and in my opinon it's a pretty good general rule. In the 20-plus years I spent in the newspaper business, I thought my colleagues were a trifle holier-than-thou about the whole thing, but to paraphrase songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, I kept my campaign business in my pocket.

In 1996 the Chicago Tribune and I had an ugly divorce. The market for Washington-based white male political writers and columnists of a certain age was a crowded demographic and after while it was clear my days in daily journalism were effectively at an end.

By 2000, I felt comfortable giving some dough to Al Gore for President, and no regrets except for the fact that Joe Lieberman may have benefited in some way.

We all know what happened in Florida that year and as for me an avalanche of mailings from every tree-loving, affirmative-acting, union-organizing liberal interest group rained down on our house. And the rain continues to this day.

I went in again in 2004 for Sen. John Kerry. My wife Jane and I also coughed up a modest amount for the Democratic National Committee. I was miffed at the presidential outcome but felt better about my largesse as the second Bush-Cheney term began to reveal itself.

2008 was no different. Made a modest contribution to the Barack Obama campaign. Gave $50 to something called "Act Blue" in support of the Democratic House member from my old Republican home town in western New York state. He turned out to be Eric Massa. Stop laughing.

So here we are. President Obama is doing pretty well on the job by my lights. But it's clear that a chap like me cannot pony up enough money to make it interesting. And I didn't write the checks to support the antics of recalcitrant Senate Democrats led by the preposterous Max Baucus of Montana who made a hash of health care or for the timid likes of Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Not looking for perfection here but I'm still waiting on closing Gitmo and I'm not for open carry of guns in our national parks, which is now the law of the land. I'm pretty sure that the Afghanistan adventure is going to wind up badly.

Mostly I'm waiting for those 68 million people who voted for Obama to make themselves heard, and for the President and his party to act as if they're proud of what they're trying to do. I believe those two phenomena are connected.

This approach may not involve pleasing Lindsey Graham or Olympia Snowe or various editorial writers or the folks braying for "bipartisanship" as the culture war heats up.

Until then, however, the little check is not on the mail.