Two of my grandfathers fought in World War II. Their stories from the time were spare and halting (perhaps, in one case, because he was drafted so late that he never left Chicago before the war was over). They're both gone now, taken by cancer, and large parts of me regret that I didn't get more information, that I didn't push them to talk more about it, even when it was obvious that they either didn't remember what had happened or had willfully forgotten. The last time I saw my other grandfather, I had my video camera along. I was going to get his story down, but he was ailing, unable to speak for very long. And so I let it slide, thinking I might see him again that fall. And, of course, I didn't because that is the way of things.
It would be easy to say that works like The Pacific make it that much more evident the sacrifices these men made, the things they did as a matter of fact, just because they were doing what they had to do for God and country and their buddies at their side. And, I suppose, it's a good reminder of that. But at some point while watching the miniseries for the first time - I think it was during the Basilone wedding in "Part Eight" - I was struck by another sensation. I was struck, for the first time, by the knowledge of just how young these people were, of how they, too, once felt as invincible and impervious to death as I do right now. They loved and struggled and looked toward the future as a place where they could build better lives.
In a way, our grandparents and parents always seem locked into the age they were when we first met them. It is as impossible for me to reanimate a photo of my grandparents' wedding and see them again when their lives held nothing but promise as it is for me to travel back to 1946 and live in a land full of people who hoped the best was yet to come. I have my imagination, sure, and I have the snippets of stories I remember, but the more the gulf opens between where I live now and where they lived then, the more it seems like a fiction or a well-told story. Hell, the America of my childhood feels like a place that shouldn't have existed, and that was the 1980s. Every second that passes, we all get older, and the events they lived through push farther and farther away from us. And there's nothing we can do to catch them.
Normally, I'm not a big fan of sequences in war movies where we see the people whom the story was based on as old men, but I found the one in The Pacific moving, somehow. So few of these men were still alive. The ones that were were so, so old. They all lived such normal lives - car salesman, husband, journalist, father - and the farther we got from the war, the more we forgot that they were once young and put that all on the line to make the world safe. The thing that "Part Ten" of The Pacific drives home for me the most is that the world marched on remarkably quickly. The Leckies were less than a year removed from the war, and already, they were arguing about domestic political issues, using the U.S. triumph in World War II to justify shutting down strikers (when, really, the two had nothing to do with each other). And Sledge and his friends, coming back home in 1946, found themselves already becoming a part of history, a series of faded photographs. The young soldier off to the front either comes home in a body bag or he slowly becomes just another old man. And maybe no one knows who he was, what he did.
I said in comments last week that I think the first four or five hours of The Pacific - the ones that caused so much dissent among viewers - were structurally necessary, that the story must be both about Leckie and Sledge, not just one or the other. Sure, we get our war hero storyline out of Basilone (and the scene tonight where Lena visits his family is as moving as anything else in that storyline), but Leckie and Sledge become opposing figures after the war. Leckie is a man who came into the war with a life that had given him nothing but shit, and he came out of it injured but with a sense of himself as a man and as a leader. He's able to talk his way into the job he really wants and into the heart of the girl next door, even as she has a much better-on-paper suitor. And Sledge, who went into the war as a rather stable young man with a good family and good morals, comes out the other side of it utterly shattered, a broken mirror in the process of putting itself back together.
I don't know how "Part Ten" is going to play for people who haven't seen the series on DVD like I did. Both times through the series, I've devoured the last four hours or so in one big gulp, going from the horrors of Peleliu to the improbable love story of the Basilones to the trudge and terror of Okinawa to the seeming implausibility of home. I love the way this episode visually quotes one of my favorite movies of the '40s, The Best Years of Our Lives, as the Marines, arriving home to places that seem like they haven't changed, even as the Marines have changed so much, find themselves in childhood homes that they've outgrown like an old shirt. Already, the world is rushing forward - a rush Leckie is eager to join while Sledge simply longs to find forgiveness for surviving where so many didn't - but the worlds they came from and still inhabit are somehow frozen, places they are in but somehow not of.
"Part Ten" is slower moving than any other chapter, and it's deliberately contemplative. On its surface, it's a simple story of what these men sacrificed for the betterment of humanity, but there are other things going on as well. If the main character of The Pacific is the Pacific, then this is the first episode where the Pacific barely appears. In a way, it's about how the Pacific is now a part of these men, the way that it infects them, destroying some and sparing others. There's a sight of Leckie's childhood home early in the episode as he approaches it for the first time in years, and it looks almost surreal, a place that doesn't seem like it should exist anymore after so many moments in the grit and grime. We haven't gone through one-thousandth of what these men went through, but we still begin to understand the shock of coming home, of having life slow down again to its normal pace.
I love where the story leaves Leckie and Sledge, how it deposits them gently on the shores of history and leaves them be to the rest of their lives. Watching Leckie talk himself into the newspaper job is a delight, but watching him talk his way into Vera's heart is even better. The final scene with him features him at the dinner table with his contentious family, talking about how he's going to buy a television, now, suddenly, able to ignore his family and their jabs at him, instead joking with Vera, staring deeply into her eyes. They create a unit unto themselves, and you can see how Leckie is going to come out of a life that held lots of trauma up until this point and how he's going to come out of it just fine. The Pacific is a part of Leckie, but it's a part that showed him what he was capable of, and others see that reflected in him.
It's harder for Sledge. It's always harder for Sledge.
Coming home from the front with his friends, Sledge is amazed at how quickly the country's other citizens have forgotten what he and his buddies gave up for them. Quietly, his friends leave him (and the scene where Snafu leaves but doesn't even wake him up to say goodbye is devastating), and then he's in a Mobile where everyone else is working to move on - Sid, in fact, is marrying the prettiest girl in town - and yet he simply cannot. We leave Sledge after he's only begun to heal, after he collapses to the ground and has to feel his father's arms around him before he can begin to release the pain of what he saw and who he became. He lifts a flower up to blot out the sun as he lays in a meadow, but the sun's glare is always present. You can try to cover up the stain of the past as best you can, but it will always be there. These things have a way of coming out.
It's popular to say that we've forgotten our veterans and our war dead. But in the case of World War II, I don't know that that's really true. A World War II veteran - at least, the few that are remaining - is invariably treated with respect and a kind of awe. What we mean when we say that we've forgotten them is that we, as civilians, can never possibly understand what they went through and what they sacrificed. But what we really can never understand is that these men were young once, too, and they, in many cases, gave that up.
You will get older, and I will too, and the things we wish to block out will grow brighter and brighter, until we're approaching death and thinking back on what was and what could have been. But those guys were young and old all at once, men who spent the rest of their lives thinking that one step, one second of difference could have changed everything, men who spent the rest of their lives either racing from that fact or trying to block it out. They tried to find ways to push that aside as they could, seeking joy where they could find it - in the pleasures of a summer's day or the pretty blue of their lover's eyes - but the world forgot, as it does, and the men they were became a series of dusty memories, tucked away in an attic somewhere. The Pacific is not a time machine, not exactly, but it is a sort of window. They can be young again, and the world can be as it was. We go into the attic. We open the box. We remember.
- It's been a pleasure covering this miniseries with you guys. I swear you're going to all love this as much as I do once you can watch it on DVD. Even the Leckie stuff.
- Snafu didn't talk to Sledge and the rest for 35 years? That's pretty hardcore. Also, he's probably the actor who looked the least like his real life counterpart.
- Which is better? With the Old Breed or Helmet for My Pillow?
- I hope you now all see why I love Caroline Dhavernas so much. The script for this one makes her character perform some hairpin turns in re: motivations, but she makes every one of them completely believable (though it helps that James Badge Dale is pretty charming in these sequences). Also, I loved the fact that Leckie never sent the letters and, ultimately, lost them to the ravages of the rain.
- So HBO has gone to the World War II well twice. It's visited the most recent Iraq war for Generation Kill and the Revolutionary War for John Adams. Where should the network go next? I've seen some of you recommending Korea, which isn't a bad idea, but I'd like to see something about World War I, even if that war is kind of inherently uncinematic.