Sunday marked the much-anticipated first episode of HBO’s The Pacific, the latest mini-series from the folks who brought you Band of Brothers. The production team includes, most notably, Hollywood icon Tom Hanks – and therein lies a still-simmering controversy that has cast a negative spotlight on the show just as it has begun its television run.
In a March 6 story at Time.com (subsequently corrected on March 11) Douglas Brinkley penned a gushing tribute to Hanks in anticipation of the debut of The Pacific, entitled “How Tom Hanks Became America’s Historian in Chief.” Sadly, Brinkley’s piece didn’t have much to do with history, much less with establishing Hanks as an expert on the subject.
For Brinkley, Hanks is not your typical left-coast progressive. Not only is Hanks supposedly knowledgeable about the events that shaped this nation, but the actor has put that journey of discovery to good use and, as a result, is really much more a moderate and a patriot than your usual run-of-the-mill Hollywood celebrity. Brinkley warmed to this theme early in his article:
“His view of American history is a mixture of idealism and realism, both of which have characterized all the work he has produced; he’s a Kennedy liberal with old-time values, the kind that embraces Main Street on the Fourth of July.”
But how to reconcile that view of Hanks with this utterance by the actor from the same article:
“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”
That dual insult to everyone who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II and to everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today is predictable when one considers where and how Hanks has filled his personal storehouse of historical knowledge. According to Brinkley:
“What differentiates Hanks from the academic past masters is his conviction that the historical experience should be a very personal one. He harbors a pugnacious indignation against history as data gathering, preferring the work of popular historians like McCullough, Ambrose, Barbara Tuchman and Doris Kearns Goodwin.”
“As Hanks’ star rose in the 1990s, he sought out new sources of what he calls ‘entertainable historical knowledge.’ Leon Uris’ fact-anchored novels — Mila 18, Armageddon and Exodus — taught Hanks to feel history in a way no high school teacher ever did, but the entertainment level had to be hyperkinetic to hold his attention. It was the same with most academic histories.”
Whatever “enteratainable historical knowledge” is supposed to be, it’s not history. It’s rather a fragment of history, taken out of context and placed against a dramatic backdrop that distorts the true picture. I love reading the late Stephen Ambrose as much as the next guy, but Ambrose told personal stories. He did not pen sweeping perspectives that document the forces and facts of history on the large scale. But, real history bores Hanks, so he’ll stick with the Saving Private Ryan formula when it comes to storytelling. And that’s great. Who doesn’t love Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers? Those works are invaluable tributes to the men who won World War II. When Hanks sticks to such personal stories, we are the richer for them. But when Brinkley’s new appointed “Historian in Chief” (perhaps “History Czar” is in Hanks’ future?) start commenting on historical, geo-political forces and social dynamics, he finds himself far out over his skis.
Even an armchair historian understands that the seeds of the Pacific war were planted when Japanese imperialistic aggression manifested itself in a brutal attack against China. America antagonized Japan because we applied diplomatic pressure to protect the Chinese from the Japanese. Our defense of China led directly to Pearl Harbor and everything that followed. The implication that race had anything to do with the war is nothing but nonsensical, unsupportable, neo-historical propaganda.
During World War II, Americans under Joe Stillwell fought alongside Chinese soldiers trying to drive the imperial armies of Japan from their land. Americans under Douglas MacArthur liberated the Philippines. Americans and Filipinos united under Lieutenant Colonel (self-appointed Brigadier General) Wendell Fertig, one of the unsung heroes of World War II, to conduct a heroic guerrilla war against Japanese rule on the Philippine island of Mindano. Our troops in the Pacific spent a great deal of their time and risked their lives to defend and liberate peoples whom Hanks calls “yellow, slant-eyed dogs.” A real “historian in chief” ought to be aware of that undeniable fact.
The same is true in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Anyone who has spent even a modicum of time talking with soldiers coming back from the front lines in those nations knows the truth. Our troops aren’t motivated by the need to kill alien “ragheads” (though that particular pejorative is regularly employed when it comes to jihadists); they are primarily motivated by two things: the desire to do right by their comrades-in-arms; and by the moral obligation to protect the peaceful, civilian populace in the nations they serve.
American soldiers have not and do not battle enemy combatants because they might have an alien appearance. American soldiers fight those enemies because they serve alien, tyrannical ideologies. If Tom Hanks intends to chronicle the stories of the brave men and women who have risked everything in the name of liberty, he would do well to remember the nobility of the causes they serve.