THE PACIFIC: Hell Was An Ocean Away - Hugh Ambrose / Review

Hugh's father, Stephen, was the guiding light behind what eventually became the extraordinary Band Of Brothers mini-series in 2001, a searing and emotional depiction of the war in Europe over the course of ten episodes, starting with Easy Company's training at the Currahee training site in Georgia and concluding with the surrender of Germany. But Band Of Brothers was significantly about the British or European experience of the Second World War and many viewers would probably have had a working knowledge of most of the major conflicts in the series.  

The Pacific is an altogether different prospect because it tells us about a different Second World War, an American one if you will, where as well as their operations in Europe the US was also fighting the Empire of Japan. Beyond the shocking attack of Pearl Harbour I wonder how many of us, as casual viewers of a certain generation, know as much about the war in the Pacific as we do about the Battle Of Britain, Operation Market Garden, Dunkirk.

Ambrose, with Spielberg, Hanks and HBO, seeks to correct that with the new ten-part mini-series The Pacific which looks at the events at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and through to Okinawa and then the Japanese surrender. As Ambrose himself has said:

"When I think of the comparisons between the Pacific War and the European theater of operations, I'm more overwhelmed by the contrasts than anything else. In Europe, we were fighting a ground campaign, essentially from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. There was a logical, linear sense to it; it was almost entirely Army and it would result in the complete destruction of Hitler's government.

There is a simplicity that was entirely missing in the Pacific where the campaigns began earlier in 1941 and went on into 1945. The vast ocean of enmity (in the Pacific conflict) with all the different islands and all the different campaigns can be very overwhelming. So our challenge with The Pacific was to boil it down to its essence -- as much as you can in ten hours of TV. We wanted to take you from the first shot to the final battle."

Ambrose's book The Pacific has quite a different approach from the mini-series and is a singular work that weaves many of the events in the television series together with material and characters that don't get featured in the series. It expands and develops the biographies of individuals involved in the story and it doesn't focus on one character but rather switches between five different men as they progress through the war.

As the series concerns itself with three men, Leckie, Basilone and Sledge, the book also provides fascinating accounts of Navy pilot Mike Micheel's experiences in the Battle Of Midway (not covered at all in the series), the moving and disturbing account of Austin Shofner's time in a POW camp and Sid Phillips, Sledge's childhood friend. These broaden the experience of the television series and as you watch the series you become aware of the other stories going on in the background, covered by Ambrose's book, that inform the stories of the three men on screen.

The book pulls no punches and describes the war as a ferocious, brutal, often dehumanising, experience and it's often an immersive but equally frustrating read. You find yourself often engrossed, understanding why men fight for their countries and at the same time deeply saddened at the atrocities committed in the name of humanity. However, as Ambrose claims in the foreword this is not a book that goes into intricate detail about the battles and neither is it meant to be a biography. And that's an issue with the stories of the five men that the book attempts to tell. It's biggest problem is that it keeps switching from character to character just as the momentum of their stories gets going.

He strives to tell it as it was but whilst it is an interesting book, there is sadly a disconnection between the reader and and the men involved in the conflict. There are some hair-raising descriptions of Micheel's bombing runs and harrowing descriptions of various battles but Ambrose's writing style often dissuades you from what is obviously a compelling story. It often lapses into a matter of fact field report, can be a bit dry and dislocated and, critically, doesn't really find the voices or feelings of the men involved. Whether this is deliberate, or not, is anyone's guess but it does make the book hard to read when in fact you should be rapidly turning the pages.

This problem is also something that the critics of Band Of Brothers raised in that they appreciated the wide, visual canvas but found connecting with the men involved a rather disorientating experience, thus making it hard to engage emotionally with the characters. I hope the television version of The Pacific avoids the dryness of the book and the disorientation of Spielberg and Hanks' efforts on Band Of Brothers. From the three episodes I've seen already I think they've addressed some of these issues. Ambrose's book, despite all the research, is hampered by the style it is written in and only momentarily brings to life the experience of this war, a conflict that deserves as resonant a place in our psyches as Dunkirk and D-Day. 

The Pacific: Hell Was An Ocean Away - Hugh Ambrose (Canongate -  Published March 18th 2010 - ISBN: 9781847678225 - Hardback)
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