THE PACIFIC by Hugh Ambrose Canongate, 489pp, £20
THE American Second World War and the British Second World War were very different experiences. Before their joint invasion of continental Europe in June 1944 the two countries were largely engaged in separate theatres. Even after D-Day the United States continued to fight on two fronts. Their first and last enemy was the Empire of Japan.
The difference has been reflected for over 60 years in the literature, film and buzzwords from the war on either side of the Atlantic. For our own Dunkirk, El Alamein and Battle Of Britain, the Americans have Bataan, Iwo Jima and Midway. Most of the great British war movies told stories of the Atlantic sea battles, North Africa or the skies over East Anglia in the summer of 1940. The Americans looked east, to vicious, unsparing conflicts on inhospitable outcrops a thousand miles from anywhere, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Steven Spielberg's film Saving Sergeant Ryan and the TV series it inspired, Band of Brothers, were not of course unique in replaying the American role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in Europe. But Spielberg was probably going to have to follow them with a look at his country's main concern: the war that stretched from aircraft carriers duelling like mythical monsters in the Coral Sea to the atom bomb dropping on Nagasaki three years later.
Spielberg and his partner in the enterprise, Tom Hanks, began in 2003 to think of applying the Band of Brothers concept to the war in the Pacific. Spielberg knew that the American historian Stephen Ambrose, who had written a successful book on the Normandy landings, was also looking at the Pacific.
The film-maker suggested a collaboration. Stephen Ambrose was too ill to participate and passed the project on to his son Hugh. Hugh Ambrose was subsequently hired by Spielberg to help develop the storyline of The Pacific. Having immersed himself in the subject matter he felt able to produce his own, parallel, literary treatment. So he wrote it.
The Pacific is therefore more the book of the film than the book which inspired the film, or rather the TV series which will be broadcast next month. It is different from most other books-of-the-film because it is, in its own right, extremely good.
The Band of Brothers formula is to tell the story of a military campaign through the experiences of a handful of fighting men. In covering the 11 months between the D-Day invasions and the fall of Berlin, the original Band of Brothers was following a relatively short and linear narrative.
The war in the Pacific was not like that. It was fought for 44 months on land, sea and air over millions of square miles. It involved two superpowers: one an imperial hereditary theocracy; the other a secular republican democracy. The war in Europe was contested chiefly between Europeans, even if many of them had transplanted to America. The war in the Pacific was fought by men who had almost nothing in common but their humanity, and who consequently felt enabled to deny even that.
The characters chosen by Ambrose to tell his story overlap but are not synonymous with the men in the Spielberg/Hanks TV series, which is largely based on two established Pacific war memoirs, EB Sledge's With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow.
Sledge and Leckie both feature in the book, but Ambrose included in his five-strong central cast two men who you will not see on television. One was an aviator and the other a US marine who escaped from a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Philippines and became involved in resistance guerrilla movements.
On this side of the pond not many people have heard of "Manila John" Basilone, just as not many people in Basilone's home town of Raritan, New Jersey have heard of Douglas Bader. Hugh Ambrose focuses intensely on Manila John, not least because finding the real man beneath the thick layers of wartime propaganda will have been an intriguing exercise.
John Basilone was a gift to the US war effort in more ways than one. Basilone was a son of Italian immigrants who believed deeply in the righteousness of his country's cause, despite the fact that when America entered the war Italy was one of the enemy Axis powers. During one of the bloodbaths on the island of Guadalcanal in 1942, Basilone behaved like a Marvel comics superhero. In the retelling it would become unclear whether he had killed a thousand Japanese troops or three dozen, and whether he had manned his machine gun without pause for three days or 11 hours. Even at the lower estimates, which Hugh Ambrose endorses, John Basilone did enough to merit the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
He was then plucked out of rest and recreation at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia and sent around the States selling war bonds with a group of B-list celebrities. To almost anybody else, being kissed for the cameras by starlets would seem preferable to yomping in a monsoon through jungles already occupied by tens of thousands of hostile Japanese soldiers. It's the fact that Basilone was not anybody else that makes Hugh Ambrose's study absorbing. Manila John insisted on kissing the celebs goodbye and making his way to Iwo Jima, where ... you'll have to read the book.
Ambrose is long on detail and short on commentary and interpretation, which is exactly right in a history like The Pacific. He lets his soldiers tell the story. Through them, not him, we learn of the abandoned GIs' distaste for General Douglas MacArthur, who fled for Australia and left them to die or surrender in the Philippines.
Through those young men we are given an uncompromising picture of the war, which, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans believed to be their most important engagement. The TV series might offer us a glimpse of that distant conflict in the Pacific. Hugh Ambrose's book gives us the greatest generation in the round.
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