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

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[Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at the Observer.]

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....

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?

Equally ambitious as a military campaign to D-Day and the operations in Europe that followed, the Pacific campaign saw a vast naval task force forge its way across a huge theatre of operations from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands through to the Philippines and the final brutal battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in Japan's home islands. With combat often at far closer quarters than in Europe, and with troops beset by malaria, dysentery and hunger, the experience was often described as "hellish".

Filmmakers' relative lack of interest in the Pacific puzzled the series director, Tim Van Patten. "Most of the battles in Europe have been abundantly covered. I'm not sure why, but the Pacific has not been covered nearly as well and the battles were long-drawn-out, horrific experiences."

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....

History has come to judge the wars against Japan and Germany in subtly different ways that has made it difficult – if not impossible – to replicate the unambiguously heroic version of the Pacific war consumed by an earlier generation. As the full depravity of Hitler's Final Solution became ever more clear, the war in Europe was underpinned by the notion that it was a fight of good against evil, a "good war". But the combat in the Pacific theatre has come to be understood as a more nuanced and murky affair, one that was poisonously coloured by mutual racial antagonism and barbarity. The conclusion of the Pacific war with the detonation of two atomic bombs has also powerfully influenced how we view the entire campaign....

And if there has been an act of forgetting regarding the Pacific war and all its horrors, it is not one that has been confined simply to the American victors. When the actor Ken Watanabe was interviewed in 2006 about his portrayal of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, he said that knowledge of the Pacific war was not much better in Japan.

"Unfortunately most Japanese people aren't aware of this tragedy; even I didn't know until I did the film. It's difficult to say why, but perhaps it has something to do with the lack of a good education." For that reason alone, in both countries, the revisiting of one of the second world war's most brutal campaigns is a necessary corrective.

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