For decades the European dimension has utterly dominated the national narrative of America's role in history's greatest war. This is the war of HBO's miniseries Band of Brothers—Hitler, D-Day, and the Holocaust. The average American memory of the Asian-Pacific war seldom ventures beyond Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, and Hiroshima—if that far. Potentially the single-most important and enduring achievement of the new HBO miniseries The Pacific will be to inspire a long-overdue reawakening to the strategic importance, sheer scale, and unsurpassed savagery of the wars unleashed by Japan. It should also afford a portal through which later generations will recover an understanding of the American people's consciousness of their World War II enemies.
Japan, having seized Manchuria in 1931, continued to subjugate swaths of China until July 1937, when full-scale war between the two countries erupted. To Japan's shocked surprise, despite a huge loss of territory and the death of millions, the Chinese people refused to yield to foreign conquest as they had for more than a century. Instead, China grimly continued to resist. The struggle generated appalling visual imagery and horrifying accounts from missionaries that trumped both the vast racial divide and American isolationism in setting the United States on a collision course with Japan. It culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack quickly followed by Germany's declaration of war on the United States.
These momentous twin strokes fused together what had been two separate wars, in Europe and in Asia, and also thrust a united and impassioned America into the war. It's impossible to overstate the importance of this sequence of events to the outcome of the whole global struggle. If the Chinese had quit the war before 1941, Japan may have joined Germany in overwhelming the Soviet Union. Further, there would be no clear route to a resolute American entry into the war.
The Asian-Pacific aspect of the conflict also rendered one other signal contribution to the war's course. In the early months of 1942, German commanders urged a coordinated Axis strategy of a German advance down through the Middle East to link up with a Japanese naval thrust across the Indian Ocean. This would sever the last connection between China and its allies, ending its participation in the war and freeing up large Japanese ground forces for the Pacific—or for use against the Soviet Union. It would likewise collapse Great Britain's position in India and the Middle East, a devastating blow almost certain to bring down Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government, and eliminate the Allies' supply route through the Persian Gulf, along which the United States shipped the majority of Lend-Lease armaments destined for the Soviets. The American victories at Midway and then Guadalcanal, however, foreclosed what loomed as the Axis powers' last realistic chance to win the war.
The date of the Pearl Harbor attack additionally affords a benchmark for gauging the European and Asian-Pacific conflicts. Adolf Hitler's Germany needed roughly 28 months to conquer an expanse of the globe spanning four time zones and encompassing about 225 million people. In just six months from December 1941, imperial Japan burst from her stalemate in China to master territories from the borders of India in the east; across Southeast Asia, China, and Korea; northeast to the Aleutian Islands; and southward to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The empire blanketed seven time zones and included about 400 million people.
If this portrait of the scale of the Asian-Pacific war constitutes a revelation to contemporary Americans, full grasp of the savagery of that conflict likewise provokes surprise. There are no certain figures for the overall death toll in World War II. Published totals now customarily range from 50 million to 65 million—the fact that even today there is no agreement on deaths to within 10 million to 15 million is stunning. The toll in the Asian-Pacific theaters is generally placed between 17 million and 27 million. Thus, at least a third and possibly closer to half the conflict's worldwide deaths occurred in the Asian and Pacific areas.
Further proof of the Far Eastern conflict's savagery is the starling contrast between the ratio of noncombatant deaths to military deaths in the European and the Asian-Pacific wars. Because Nazi Germany has, for good reason, become a symbol of evil, most Americans assume the proportion of civilian deaths was much higher in Europe. The reality is that the ratio in Europe is somewhere between 1 to 1.3 noncombatant deaths for every military death. In the Asian-Pacific theaters, however, 3 to perhaps as many as 5 noncombatants died for each combatant who was killed. Moreover, approximately 90 percent of those noncombatant deaths were not Japanese. The number of civilians killed in all the bombings of Japan, including the atomic blasts, only runs between 2 and 4 percent of all noncombatant deaths in the Asian-Pacific theaters.
Without a doubt, the clash between Germany and the Soviet Union featured mass barbarities and the widespread killing of prisoners of war. In the Pacific, however, imperial Japan adopted a bastardized version of the ancient Bushido warrior code between the 1920s and 1941 that inculcated the norm for every Japanese serviceman that surrender was an act of unbearable shame. For each Japanese soldier, airman, and sailor, battle could only end in victory or extinction. Between 1937 and 1945, there was no organized surrender of any Japanese unit in any skirmish, battle, or campaign. That's a record utterly without historical parallel for a nation-state. Thus, the elemental force propelling the Pacific war into the unsurpassed depths of savagery was not race, but culture.
There is yet another startling disconnect between American memory and actual history. While the American public during World War II grasped the importance of stopping Hitler's grand design of world conquest and they knew generally of the ruthlessness of Nazi Germany, only a minuscule number of Americans prior to April 1945 comprehended the reality of what is now referred to as the Holocaust. As late as November 1944, a Gallup poll showed that while three out of four Americans acknowledged Jews as Hitler's special target, only 3 percent believed that the Nazi regime had killed even as a many as one million Jews. The overwhelming majority of Americans placed the figure at far less, and only an infinitesimal number credited the scattered accounts of mass, industrialized-scale murder. It was only in April 1945, as British and U.S. forces overran concentration camps in Germany, that the reality of what Nazi Germany had perpetrated hit the vast majority of the American people.
In stark contrast to contemporary U.S. attitudes about Hitler's Germany stands American knowledge about Japan. From 1937 to 1941, the American public was showered with graphic imagery from China of Japanese savagery; some images depicted bestiality so extreme that they were not published. By contrast, Germany made sure no such damning visual evidence escaped its orbit. Thus, prior to Pearl Harbor, the American people had no reason to judge Hitler's Germany as inherently more evil than Japan; if anything, the reverse was true. This perception reflected an important reality. When Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939, his regime had at most killed tens of thousands. As of that date, Japan had slaughtered literally millions of Chinese and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's death toll likewise was in seven figures, at least. Hitler's slaughters only moved into the millions range in the second half of 1941.
Millions of viewers will approach The Pacific with one urgent question: How does it compare—indeed can it compare—with Band of Brothers? At one level the parallels seem obvious. Both view the war through the eyes of men in one unit. Band of Brothers followed the paratroopers of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The Pacific follows three main figures each serving in a separate infantry regiment of the 1st Marine Division: Robert Leckie (1st Marine Regiment), Eugene Sledge (5th Marines), and John Basilone (7th Marines).
What is counterintuitive about this chasm between a company and a division as the "unit" is that the average viewer will more swiftly bond with the Marines in The Pacific. Even fervent admirers of Band of Brothers confess that it takes multiple viewings to sort out all the individuals from part one to part ten. The Pacific immediately introduces the three central Marines and locates the key secondary characters as satellites to each main character. The viewer quickly recognizes "Runner," "Hoosier," and "Chuckler" with Leckie; J. P. Morgan and "Manny" Rodriguez with Basilone; and R. V. Burgin, Bill Leyden, and Merriel "Snafu" Shelton with Sledge. The key exception to this pattern is Sid Phillips, who links Leckie (Sid's one of his buddies) and Sledge (Sid's childhood friend from Mobile, Alabama). The structure translates directly into rapid and intense emotional investment with the characters. Added to that is the high tension the series produces by demonstrating early that there's no guarantee any particular Marine will survive.
The Pacific displays the same meticulous attention to technical detail and special-effects wizardry that characterized Band of Brothers. As with the earlier miniseries, fanatics will find the rare misstep along the way, but uniforms and equipment, language and weapons' effects overwhelmingly meet the extraordinary detailed standards set by Band of Brothers. The action sequences are, in my opinion, even more riveting for two reasons. The first is that action in the jungles or Pacific islands compelled combat at extremely close range. The second is that, unlike the Germans, the Japanese chose to fight predominantely at night. While their predilection for nocturnal combat rested on tactical considerations, psychologically it also recruited man's most primitive fears. The depiction of the struggles in darkness presents a far tougher cinematic challenge that the production brilliantly surmounts.
The Pacific also excels in another key dimension. Few would suggest that the Japanese were a more menacing battlefield foe than the Germans or that fighting in Europe lacked daunting physical challenges. But virtually all World War II veterans agreed that the physical rigors of fighting in dense, damp, and terrifying jungles in the Pacific and the absence of any trappings of civilization set apart combat against the Japanese. Thus, one of the triumphs of The Pacific is the graphic re-creation of that incredibly alien and depressing environment.
Viewers of The Pacific will note that it's even more relentless than Band of Brothers in maintaining the perspective of front-line infantry. This does, however, produce some regrettable but inevitable consequences. Absent is much context of the larger picture, like strategy, the campaigns fought by the U.S. Army and Australians, or even air and sea battles fought in conjunction with the Marines' struggles ashore. Moreover, some will argue that the Japanese appear stripped of all humanity. It's true that there's no extended treatment of any individual Japanese—nor could there be under the terms of the fighting dictated by Japan. But even within those limits, the sophisticated script harbors a telling collective picture more nuanced than simply a collage of targets or tormentors. And the wrenching sequences on Okinawa, where large numbers of civilians are horrifically caught in the middle of the battle, refute any argument that only the Marines earn sympathy.
The Pacific will be a cultural event on the level with Band of Brothers. It can and should provoke thought and controversy. But even as a committed admirer of Band of Brothers, my ultimate verdict must be that The Pacific is grimmer and greater.