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Book Review: The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose

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The Pacific, Hugh Ambrose’s companion volume to the acclaimed HBO series of the same name, approaches the WWII campaign against Japan in the Pacific in much the same way as the series. It does not attempt to give a comprehensive history of the events after the attack on Pearl Harbor; it does not attempt to give even a complete account of those battles and events it does talk about. What the book does is to try to give a personalized view of some of these events as experienced by five of the men who lived through them. Some of the five — Medal of Honor winner John Basilone and Eugene Sledge — are central figures in the TV series; one, Sidney Phillips, appears in the series, but in a less featured role. Two of the five — Austin “Shifty” Shofner and Vernon Micheel — provide a completely new perspective.

Shofner was captured at the very beginning of the conflict. After some time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, he escaped, spent some time with the guerillas and eventually returned to the front to take part in the battles at Peleliu and Iwo Jima. Moreover as an officer, he was privy to a side of the war to which the enlisted men central to the TV series lacked direct experience. Micheel was a bomber pilot. His experiences flying missions from aircraft carriers both during sea battles and in support of the Marines give an important insight into an aspect of the war the television series doesn’t cover at all.

The book also addresses some of the more controversial elements associated with the war. Douglas MacArthur, for example, is not only not held up as the great hero by most of the Marines — more often than not he is reviled for his behavior in leaving Bataan as well as his failure to be properly prepared. Many saw him merely as a glory seeker taking credit for other people’s actions. Some of this may well be Marine Corps animosity to all things Army, but some of it is certainly worth considering. In dealing with the air war, it deals with some of the problems fliers had with new bombers: wings that wouldn’t stay locked down, bombs failing to release on targets, wheel releases located out of the pilots’ reach. Indeed, these were only a few of such problems. The treatment of American prisoners of war is also highlighted, as is the failure to do anything about it.

Still there is much in Ambrose’s book that the series viewer will recognize. There is the friendship of Phillips and Sledge and Sledge’s problems with his parents over his desire to enlist. There is the R and R in Australia after Guadalcanal. There is Basilone’s war bond tour of cities back in the States after he is awarded his medal, and his courtship and marriage before volunteering to go back to the front. There are even specific events that will be familiar: the rush across the airstrip at Peleliu, the shooting of the Japanese soldier with the grenade after he is forced from the pill box where he had the Marines pinned down, the soldier who is killed by his own men because his screaming will give away their position.

In general when it comes to the descriptions of the actual battles, the dramatic series provides a much more vivid picture of the horrors of war than Ambrose’s prose. In one sense this is a tribute to the artistry of the film makers. Their battle scenes are realistic portrayals of the confusion of war. On the other hand, at times, Ambrose’s descriptions are somewhat confusing. He alternates short passages about each of the five central figures, and there are a lot of names and places to keep track of. It is very easy to forget who people are from one section to another. The horrors of the situation sometimes seem to get lost in the mass of details. To be sure, Ambrose never glorifies the idea of war. He recognizes that war is dirty and ugly even when the cause may be just. It is simply that film when done well may be a more effective vehicle for the panorama of warfare.

The book is at its best in getting at the psyche of the men who we send to fight for us. Sledge is passionate to enlist for God and country, but by the time he is finished, he is disgusted with everything about war. He discovers very quickly that there is no glamour in a fox hole. Basilone is a man who needs action. It is with the Marines that he finds his reason for living. Shofner has the determination to go after what he wants, and to keep on doing so even if he is rebuffed. Phillips recognizes that there is nothing dishonorable in seizing an opportunity after having done one’s part. Micheel understands that in the armed forces the way to get along is to avoid confrontation. War teaches different men different lessons, and Ambrose using in many cases first hand material from the men themselves makes clear how those lessons were learned. At its best The Pacific is a significant testament to the men who fought and died in the struggle in the Pacific.

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