Why America preferred to forget about the Pacific war – until now

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A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks TV series about the second world war's brutal Pacific campaign begins tomorrow – a story surprisingly little told because, for years, the public has preferred to turn away from its dark undertone of racism and savagery.

When Tom Hanks was making Saving Private Ryan, the writer Nora Ephron sent him a book that weighs in at almost 2,000 pages: the Library of America's Reporting World War II. It was a thoughtful gift, appropriate to his then role as an infantry captain on D-Day. But when Hanks began dipping into the collection, he remarked earlier this month, what gripped him the most was not the war in Europe but the other great US campaign of the second world war – the battle for the Pacific.

So Hanks knew little of that campaign, except that it began with Pearl Harbor and ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All that happened in between, he said, was a blur of names of battles on remote atolls and unheard-of beaches – Tarawa, Leyte, Peleliu. And all the evidence suggests that he is typical in his ignorance.

While Hanks hopes this will be changed with The Pacific, the 10-part, £150m Band of Brothers-style treatment he and Steven Spielberg have given to that conflict – the most expensive television series ever filmed – his own lack of knowledge raises a puzzling question. Why did the story of the island-hopping campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 100,000 US soldiers, become so difficult to depict, while the war in Europe has spawned endless retellings?

The answers supplied to this question have ranged from the geographical unfamiliarity of the region to the difficulty of corralling an often sprawling history into a manageable story. Significant, too, has been the emerging understanding that the Pacific war's industrial-scale slaughter was underpinned on both sides by racial hatred.

It was not always like this. The immediate aftermath of the Pacific war saw a spate of powerful American memoirs. In 1948 Norman Mailer made his reputation with a first novel, The Naked and the Dead, that dramatised in unsparing detail his own experience of the battle for the Philippines. Hollywood too, at first, was galvanised by the drama of the conflict, its better films including John Ford's They Were Expendable and Allan Dwan's The Sands of Iwo Jima. Many, however, were jingoistic and simplistic, rarely ascribing any shared humanity to the Japanese side, save perhaps for John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific.

Since then, however, while films have examined every aspect of the war in Europe, serious interest in the Pacific has diminished in popular culture, a trend that only began to alter with Terrence Malick's flawed attempt to realise James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line in 1998, and more recently with Clint Eastwood's pair of sympathetic complementary films showing the battle for Iwo Jima from the sides of the US attackers and the Japanese defenders.

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