‘The Pacific’ – ‘Part Nine’: War is even more hell than usual

Senior Television Writer
05.09.10 36 Comments

A review of the penultimate episode of “The Pacific” coming up just as soon as I work on your Christmas present…

“They can’t fucking surrender?” -Hamm
“I hope they don’t. I hope we get to kill every last one of them.” -Sledge

Okinawa was intended to be the United States’ staging ground for the inevitable invasion of Japan. Instead, the fighting on the island was so savage, so devastating to both sides – and to the island’s large civilian population – and such an obvious harbinger of what would happen should US troops set foot on Japan itself, that you can understand why Truman might have felt compelled to do the unthinkable and try to end the war by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And watching the battle of Okinawa play out through the eyes of Eugene Sledge, we understand what a cost was paid even by those who survived the battle, and the Pacific theater, with their bodies intact.

The Sledge of Okinawa is unrecognizable from the eager Alabama boy who couldn’t wait to go to war and prove his manhood, or the nervous boot on Pavuvu, or even the Pepeliu vet who inherited Gunny Haney’s lighter when Gunny couldn’t take it anymore. This is a Sledge who cares about nothing and no one but blood – who feels nothing for the Japanese soldiers he kills, nor for the civilians he sees cut down, nor even really for the young boots who are just as scared as he was on the boats heading towards Peleliu.

He is, by this point, as far gone as Snafu – and, really, farther, because the carnage and unrelenting horror of Okinawa actually helps Snafu start to rediscover his humanity.

When Sledge gets news that his dog – the dog we remember from those early scenes in Mobile that now seem far more essential than they did at the time – has died, it’s just another excuse for Eugene to lose any connection to life, where it provides Snafu with an opportunity to get as warm as he can and try to comfort his buddy.

When Sledge chews out the boots for expecting different out of war than what they’re seeing – in other words, for being exactly like him – it’s Snafu who tries to distract Hamm with a question about where he’s from. When Peck’s meltdown gets Hamm killed, Sledge unloads on Peck, where Snafu recognizes the guy is so far gone that the only thing to be done is to quietly reassure him that Hamm’s death wasn’t his fault.

What a pair of amazing performances by Joseph Mazzello and Rami Malek, building on what we’ve seen before from these two so the role reversal didn’t feel forced, and yet finding new levels of, respectively, despair and tenderness as the hour went along. Snafu becomes more Sledge-like, and Sledge becomes more Snafu-like (and a bit more Leckie-like as well), but both still have pieces of who they were earlier in the war.

By this point in the miniseries, the combat scenes have been so frequent and so confusing that the viewer experiences a level of combat fatigue as well, one no doubt designed to evoke Sledge’s reaction to all of this. Endless, seemingly pointless combat, day after day, with no safe haven, even among the civilians. If a woman with a baby can be a suicide bomber, what respite is there?

And then we come to that astonishing, horrifying scene in the hut with the mortar hole in the roof, and the orphaned baby, and the woman begging for Sledge to put her down (just like the dog he lost?). That tableau becomes the latest image that Sledge will never be able to unsee, but it also seems to jolt him back into some semblance of humanity. The episode’s time on Okinawa ends not long after Eugene has his moment of clarity, so it’s entirely possible he would have gone back to his amoral bloodlust. But the episode, and the island conflict, ends in time for Sledge to leave it a shattered man, but not a monstrous one.

I first watched this episode months ago. I still shudder whenever I think about it.

What did everybody else think?

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