At what point in a war do you stop seeing the other side as something to be eliminated or an objective to wipe off the map and start seeing them as fellow human beings? Now, obviously, you can never completely give in to this way of thought, since war, to some degree, involves buying into dehumanizing myths about the enemy. But if you completely give in to it, you can turn into a complete monster, someone who is simply unable to process that, say, civilians aren't your targets. War is a balancing act for even the most hardened military man, the trick of seeing that your targets aren't people but that your targets are also all people. It's one of the great themes of war fiction that soldiers who are out in the muck too long eventually end up nearly losing their souls, and tonight, The Pacific finally got around to dramatizing that sort of story with Sledge and Snafu as our guides.
Of all of the characters in The Pacific, Sledge has followed the most classical wartime narrative. He's an innocent when he first enters the story, an innocent whose father tries to keep him from having that innocent corrupted. But he must do his duty, and over the course of his time in the Pacific, he finds himself more and more hardened by the war raging around him. There are moments in tonight's episode when Joseph Mazello stares at the camera, and his eyes seem to be almost empty. Where once stood a young man in search of a purpose is now a young man who is just looking to do his job and have it be over with, to still be alive when the war is over. Contrast his weariness with the jubilance felt by some of the newer Marines in tonight's episode, and you have a fairly decent reminder of just how far Sledge has traveled, from his rather idealistic youth to his much more cynical take on things now. And it's all happened in just a handful of months.
All war stories have the "what do we do about the civilians?" episode, but The Pacific has a more harrowing one than most. Late in the war, of course, the Japanese army started sending civilians out to greet American Marines, only for those Marines to find out the civilians had been booby-trapped, often against their will. Tonight, we see this as the Marines are greeted by a young mother and her baby, only to find that she's got explosives tied around her waist. When she blows up, it doesn't do any harm to our main characters, but it certainly sets them on much less calm footing, as seen in the scene where Snafu and Sledge find a squalling baby lying on the floor of a house and are unsure about what to do with it, having to be set straight by a fellow Marine who comes in and simply scoops the child up.
There are lots of moments like this in "Part Nine." Indeed, the episode seems to be based around two scenes where two characters talk about how they were sent over to Okinawa to "kill Japs" in very different contexts. Honestly, the fact that Sledge is the one ranting about killing in one scene and has the reversal happen to him in the other, as he tries to figure out why a Marine shot a kid through the head, feels a little too pat to me. It's entirely possible these are actual scenes from Sledge's memoir, but having them come up within a half hour of each other feels like a writerly affectation in a series that is increasingly abandoning anything like a traditional story arc in favor of capturing the sensations of what it was like to be one of these men. I appreciate Sledge's emotional journey in this episode, the way he's simply unable to shoot that gravely injured woman in the house and, instead, carries her out to safety, but having it so explicitly dramatized made it feel just a little too easy. If the writers wanted both scenes, it might have worked better to move the earlier one to an episode a few weeks ago, like the second Peleliu episode.
The rest of the episode, however, is again pretty masterful. This is another hour that just throws us down in the muck with the Marines and expects us to keep up, and I love the series' increasingly unflinching gaze when confronted with some of these things. The battles on the show have been growing increasingly apocalyptic, and while this battle is maybe not as ridiculously harrowing as the one on Peleliu, the combination of the Japanese side's new tactics, the unrelenting rain, and the day and night continuation of the battle makes it feel like something that is truly the end of all things. In particular, I love the cut from Sledge and his pals loading up the artillery with a shell, only to have the launch of that shell cut immediately to the grim firefight stretching on into the night. There's something about seeing these trenches lit up with the blaring orange of gunfire in the midst of a rainy night that makes the scenes feel even more horrifying than usual.
In fact, this whole episode seems to take place inside of a Hieronymous Bosch painting or something. Okinawa is less a piece of land sticking up out of the Pacific Ocean and more a terrifying hellscape that the men can't even hope to escape. They're stuck down in the mud and the muck, and any fantasies they might have of escape - like Peck's fantasies of "Kathy" - are derided as unrealistic both by events and the men themselves. In particular, I like the way the show uses both Peck and Hamm to suggest some of the greener recruits who were joining the forces at this stage of the war and to drive home the point about how far men like Sledge and Snafu have come. Peck and Hamm form a fairly nice point-counterpoint for ways that men tried to avoid dealing with the realities of the war around them or just got down to the grim business of trying to gut it out.
As the episode ends, the characters receive news that the U.S. has dropped a new kind of bomb on Japan, a bomb that has vaporized a whole city. We know that this bomb will change the course of human history, become one of the greatest forces for destruction that has ever existed. To the Marines, however, it's just a way to kill a bunch of Japs, to bring the end of the war that much more quickly. The dropping of the atomic bomb is one of the signature ethical debates in U.S. history, but here, it's just another event that seems to fall out of the sky and into these guys' laps. There's no time to think about what this may mean for the war effort. It's just another thing that happens, another thing that either carries them one step closer to escaping Hell or pushes them farther back down the hill, sliding and sliding until they end up face to face with a corpse.
- I rather love when historical fictions toss off things that we know to be Big Deals as Just Another Thing That Happened. Consequently, I love the way the news of the A-bomb is presented as no big deal.
- I've been reading some about how the series was whittled down to the show we have now. Apparently, the Marines that Basilone trained were supposed to get a full episode to show how his training helped them survive on Iwo Jima after his death, and there were supposed to be episodes that followed Navy pilots, giving the show a chance to tackle the air and sea war. I rather like the stripped down story we have right now, but I can see where the increased scope might have closed up some problems some have had with the start-and-stop narrative.
- An observation a friend has made: Snafu is often positioned above and behind Sledge, often over one of his shoulders. This sets the character in the position of being something like Sledge's guardian angel or conscience, a role he's played a number of times. Thoughts?