Watching the new deluxe boxed set of HBO’s excellent World War II series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” I kept thinking what a great gift this would be for the fighting men of the “greatest generation.”
And then I realized that there aren’t that many of them left.
My own father, a Navy veteran in the Pacific Theater, just turned 90. I’m guessing the youngest combat veterans of the war are at least 85.
Which means that the lasting value of these two series lies not with the men who are their subjects, but with the rest of us, who will learn some moving things about love of country, sacrifice and doing the right thing.
Yeah, that’s kind of a sappy way of putting it, and it may seem incongruous coming from someone who once considered himself a pacifist.
But these monumental TV programs are like nothing we’ve ever seen before, an examination of both combat and the American character spread out on a vast canvas.
The two series complement each other nicely.
“Band of Brothers,” first aired in 2001, follows the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company as they go through basic training and are dropped over Normandy on D-Day. In the ensuing months they fight across Europe, enduring the Battle of the Bulge, liberating a Nazi death camp and eventually becoming the first Americans to set foot in Hitler’s personal mountaintop aerie.
“Band of Brothers” was essentially the story of a unit that seemed always to be at the right (or wrong) place at the right time. It had a huge cast of characters based on real people; one of the series’ great virtues are the interviews with the actual soldiers that bookend each episode.
The closest “Band” came to a starring role was Brit actor Damian Lewis’ turn as Richard D. Winters, a quiet, selfless leader who became the epitome of American cando-itiveness.
Last year’s “The Pacific,” on the other hand, is less epic and more intimate. It’s basically the story of three Marines who fought the Japanese island to island.
All three achieved a degree of fame: In late middle age PFC Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and PFC Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) both wrote excellent memoirs of their wartimes experiences; Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda) won the Congressional Medal of Honor, traveled the U.S. selling war bonds, then requested a transfer back to his old company, dying in action on Iwo Jima.
If “Band of Brothers” is a miniseries of great sweep and historic import, “The Pacific” is about human beings enduring hell on earth.
There were more than a few times watching this series that I found myself reduced to tears by the physical and especially emotionally torments these men went through. The Pacific was so horrendous an arena that I’m amazed our post-war American streets weren’t filled with madmen or soulless wraiths. How did human beings endure all this and retain any sort of normalcy in their civilian lives?
And yet they did, thousands of men who saw things no human being should see.