In her review of the HBO miniseries, The Pacific, The New Yorker television critic Nancy Franklin says that in the collective imagination World War II was fought almost entirely in Europe. Americans seem to have practically forgotten the bloody island-hopping battles that the Marines and the Army fought to pave the way for the invasion of Japan, literally---pretty much the first thing we did after securing an island was build a landing strip for the bombers and cargo planes that would be taking off to bomb and then supply the next island. Unlike what happened in Europe, we didn’t arrive so much as liberators but as construction crews. Objectives were chosen on how useful they would be on the route from here to there. Which is why Peleliu was a horrific mistake, practically a war crime committed against our own troops. Nevermind that it was a victory. It was out of the way.
But Peleliu and the rest of the campaign in the Pacific Theatr, Franklin says,
…[have] essentially been reduced to two events and one iconic image: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the photograph of marines raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, on Iwo Jima.
I’d add MacArthur returning to the Philippines, PT-109, and kamikazes.
I’m not sure how right Franklin is about the receding of the Pacific in our collective memories in relation to the War in Europe. Right now I’d say the collective memory isn’t very focused on any part of any past war because the collective conscious, and conscience, is dealing with the fact that at the present moment we are at war.
And the Pacific was her father’s war. He fought on Guadalcanal. Naturally the war in the Pacific can’t be as vivid in the imaginations of people without a personal connection. And for most Americans alive right now, the War, the whole War, in both theatres, is their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s war. That’s a way of saying that for most people it belongs to ghosts.
What that means is that few people can feel the War with the intensity Franklin feels it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t remember it.
But for the sake of argument, and for the sake of my having something to write about, I accept her point. Put average Americans on the spot and demand they come up with five things they know about World War II and the odds are that all five will be about Europe, unless one is Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima.
Franklin suggests some reasons for this, but before I get to them I want to suggest a big one, maybe the biggest one, and get it out of the way.
For most of the people you ask one of the five things on the list is going to be the Holocaust.
Over time, as battles and place names and the stories of heroes have grown hazier in the imagination and even been dropped from the history books, the systematic murder of 10 million people in Europe has come more and more to define World War II in our minds.
Compared to that, what happened in the Pacific, except for what we did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is going to seem as remote and routine an example of human folly as the Napoleonic Wars, of interest to historians and hobbyists but of no more importance than any other example of wholesale slaughter you can name.
That the camps were at the end of the roads so many of our troops in Europe were fighting their way down gives their battles a moral and psychological urgency that makes it easier---and maybe more comforting---to identify with those GIs than with the Marines in their apparently pointless hells on Okinawa, Tarawa, and Peleliu.
Back to Franklin. She thinks that the problem with remembering the Pacific began during the war itself, and it had a lot to do with Americans’ Eurocentric thinking and imagination:
It’s not that the war in the Pacific hadn’t been written about or depicted on film; “Guadalcanal Diary,” for example, a war correspondent’s account of the battle that began in August of 1942, was published in 1943, before the Japanese had even finished evacuating the island, and the movie version came out later that year. Still, Americans in the forties were more likely to look toward Europe when thinking about the war; it was what they knew and understood, because it was where most of them were from. They didn’t have to look at a map to know where France was. Guadalcanal was a different story. Virtually no one had heard of it before 1942, and even some of the military higher-ups had trouble pronouncing it at first.
In short, Europe was home or if not home then the next parish over, while those bloody, godforesaken, ugly little rockpiles in the Pacific might as well have been on another planet.
They couldn’t feel as real to us even when the telegram arrived with the news that a son or a brother or a husband had died on one of them.
But I think there’s more to it than that. (I’m sure Franklin does too but she had to get on with writing her review of The Pacific and I’ve got nothing else better to do at the moment.) The two theatres were covered in the news very differently because they were fought very differently according to their different strategic goals.
Some of the island battles went on for days and days, some went on for weeks, and a few lasted for months, but in between those battles there were long lulls in the fighting while we prepared for the attack on the next island. From what I’ve heard and read, boredom was the unifying factor among the troops stationed over there. The War in the Pacific could disappear from the hometown newspapers and the news reels for weeks at a time.
The fighting in Europe was constant from the day Patton landed on Sicily until a few days before he rolled into Berlin.
It should be noted that at the outset Americans had reason to be glad not to be reminded of what was happening in the Pacific. The war there began with a series of humiliating American defeats. At Pearl Harbor and in the Solomons and the Philippines. We started the war by almost losing it.
And four years later it wasn’t pleasant to think about how we ended it either.
Then there’s the fact that from 1942 through 1943 and on into 1944 the War in the Pacific was just that, in the Pacific. It was a naval war or at least the most important battles, the ones that actually decided the outcome, were naval battles…and air battles. Midway was fought and won by sailors and Navy pilots.
When looked at in that way, as a war between two great navies, the big bloody land battles on Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa---the last two fought in the shadow of the the now inevitable victory in Europe, and in the shadow cast backwards from the future by the anticipated invasion of Japan, making them seem both like warm-ups and after-thoughts---were Naval operations.
This is why I’d say that although the first image of the war in the Pacific that ought to come to mind is of a terrified Marine trying to claw a foxhole out of volcanic rock it’s more likely to be of a kamikaze’s Zero shot down in the nick of time spinning into the ocean in the middle distance.
So the fighting in the Pacific was already being seen in long shot, when it was not being thought of as taking place off stage, while it was going on.
It would be no wonder then that hazy images and memories would begin to fade faster.
But people, as a people, “remember” themselves through the stories they tell each other and Americans tell their stories mainly with movies and television.
In the 1940s and 50s and into the early 60s Hollywood turned out a bunch of great war movies set in the Pacific. Sands of Iwo Jima. Halls of Montezuma. Heaven Knows Mr Allison. Run Silent, Run Deep. They Were Expendable. Mister Roberts, a war movie, by the way, in which the main enemy on screen is boredom. And, of course, From Here to Eternity, reinforcing Franklin’s point about the few specific things we remember about the war in the Pacific.
Something changed in the 60s though. War movies in general became less popular, and I’ll get to why in a bit, although I’m sure you know. The ones that did get made were mostly set in Europe.
And on television there were two popular series set in World War II. One was a serious and relatively realistic drama about soldiers fighting their way across France. The other was a comic fantasy about a gang of sailors scheming to make money and have a good time on their little island paradise in the South Pacific and sometimes interrupting their partying to put out to sea in their PT boat to sink a Japanese ship or two.
On Combat the enemy was almost always seen up close and often appeared as main characters in the story. On McHale’s Navy the enemy was largely invisible. The only Japanese who appeared as a featured character was a prisoner of war who was happy to be out of harm’s way and had become a willing and enthusiastic member of McHale’s gang of con artists.
What I think had happened was that as the Japanese became more and more our friends and allies it became harder and harder to remember they were ever our enemies. It became unpleasant to remember they were our enemies. Remembering the War in the Pacific requires remembering hating the Japanese.
It also requires remembering our guilt for what we did to end the War.
But in Europe we were never at war with our friends the Germans. Not in the same sense as we were at war with the Japanese. We were at war with the Nazis.
It is still easy, and kind of satisfying, to hate Nazis.
Which brings me to one last and defining difference between the War in Europe and the War in the Pacific.
There is too much to say about Hitler’s evil here, so I’ll settle for this for now. Hitler is simply a more fascinating character than Hirohito, Tojo, or any of the Japanese warlords and not just because of the immensity of his evil.
The war in Europe is the War Against Hitler and the War of the Holocaust and the war in the Pacific is, as I said, just another bloody war in comparison.
Now for my final thought.
Getting back to the stories we tell ourselves in the movies, in the 60s it became impossible to make a war movie that wasn’t in some way a commentary on the war that was being fought at the moment.
Set a war movie in the South Pacific, put your Marine heroes in the jungle up against an Asian enemy and, well, you didn’t have a movie about World War II.
And the same thing happens within our collective imagination. We can’t think of the one without immediately jumping to thinking of the other.
In between World War II and now the United States fought two wars on that far side of the world, both against Asian adversaries.
Korea is sometimes lamented by its veterans as the forgotten war.
There’s no danger that anytime soon we’re going to forget Vietnam.
Correction: This post originally included an anecdote about how John Kennedy and his crew were on a mission to fight boredom when PT-109 was rammed and sunk. Regular reader RalphH wrote in to correct me. See his comment and follow this link to the Kennedy Library’s page on JFK’s wartime service and what happened to PT-109.