HBO’s The Pacific, Episode 6

It’s not a good sign about a miniseries when your viewers are tired of the whole thing just over halfway through. Watching The Pacific these days mostly feels like a weekly chore.

This week’s episode was all about watching Sledge handle his first time in battle. Now, we’ve already seen this – remember Episode 1? Let’s not pretend that those guys were battle-hardened. No, this episode served primarily to remind us – halfway through the series – that even though some of us may be used to the fighting (even vicariously, as viewers), the new folks had to figure out how to work through the process.

Also this week, we get a nugget of “Great Philosophical Advice” to Sledge, coming from one of the commanders (or someone with more authority than Sledge) at the end of the battle. Really, are you going to insult our intelligence with the whole “war is hell” mantra and pretend to offer some grand philosophical insight to make it all better?

That was trite. It was perhaps the most trite moment of the series so far.

Mostly, I spend the episodes reflecting on why I’m dissatisfied with the storytelling. On a technical level – and by that, I mean the special effects and the battle scenes – the series is great. But on a storytelling and personal level, it’s consistently lacking.

My latest conclusion got me thinking again about this issue of how we tell war stories (which I know I’ve discussed before). I’m wondering now: in this post-9/11 world, where we’ve been a country with heavy military involvement overseas for nearly a decade now, combined with the home front mixed-feelings about the conflicts (yet insistence on supporting the troops, no matter what you think about the war) –

maybe telling stories the “old way” no longer works. There’s something very “old-fashioned” to me about how the stories in The Pacific are being told. This is not, to my mind, a reflection on the original sources being used (the books by Leckie and Sledge, etc). This is also not to say, “oh, look, World War II – it was so different way back then!” – because actually, I think there are still many similarities to How We Do War.

But I think there are several things going on with this series that handicap it and prevent it from being a great work. And I think that has to do with relying on an old model of how we understand war and how we tell war stories.

Most Americans these days, even if we do not know anyone currently in the military, have a very vibrant understanding of What War Is. This is a marked contrast from the men and women who entered World War II – they had no conception of what war might be, aside from perhaps family stories about WW1.

In contrast, we’re bombarded daily by media images and stories. We can imagine the front lines easily, and we’ve seen the trauma war produces on bodies because such images are much more readily available to us as consumers of information. We also know how propaganda can help us imagine an enemy and provoke (in some cases) reactions to that enemy.

War is not new to any of us. But the story that Spielberg and Hanks are trying to give us seems old-fashioned in its telling, an almost quaint, “ooh look, war is horrible!” idea that just doesn’t shock or awe anymore.

In the past decade – unfortunately – we’ve become much more savvy cultural consumers of conflict. I think that this calls for rethinking how we tell war stories and what we want people to understand about wars past.  We have to re-imagine how we tell these stories.

I don’t have answers, but that’s the start.

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