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.

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