The U.S. is again waging war on two bloody fronts.
One is the present battle against terrorism flowing from Sept. 11. The other is occurring on the small screen, as television flashes back 60 years to Japan's devastating attack on dozing Pearl Harbor that pulled this nation into a second global war that ended only after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
If you can handle grisly stories and pictures that unflinchingly define combat with a barbarous enemy--and how this hardened hearts of fighting men--don't miss the Learning Channel's superb, aptly titled documentary "Hell in the Pacific."
Actually, the TV schedule is relatively light regarding this huge topic, much of the media having exhausted themselves on it in May when hyperventilating about the opening of the Disney melodrama "Pearl Harbor."
The History Channel, however, does originate live today from Pearl Harbor and New Orleans, where a D-day museum's new Pacific wing is opening, and tonight it airs the documentary, "Save Our History: USS Arizona."
It's a somber anniversary. Nearly half of the Americans who died at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, were aboard the battleship Arizona. More than 900 of them remain entombed in the shallow waters beneath a museum memorializing the sunken ship's human toll and swift destruction, which is examined tonight in another documentary, the Discovery Channel's "Pearl Harbor: Death of the Arizona."
Although both deliver heartfelt testimonials to the ship's lost crew, these programs are themselves moribund and an ordeal to watch. Arcane and slow, the Discovery Channel's documentary plays nearly like Geraldo Rivera tracking Al Capone's vault in deploying science to generate suspense about the bomb that blew up the Arizona. No go. Even more deadly is the History Channel's tedious attempt to build interest in the environmental threat stemming from the sunken ship's deteriorating condition. Good intentions, arid execution.
When it comes to World War II, tonight's soaring highlight is "Hell in the Pacific," remarkably fine work from Carlton TV and producer-director Jonathan Lewis, whose newsreel pictures and eyewitnesses affirm with raw, searing honesty the shocking atrocities committed by Japanese forces and brutal retaliation by U.S. troops and their allies. An important two hours it is, detailing the Pacific war and also noting the history and mind-set that drove Japan and its military toward Pearl Harbor.
The human nature on display is not pretty in this archive of misery and horror, one that queasy viewers should skip.
Cruel and inhumane? "You weren't there," a Marine veteran says here about his comrades blowing up a cave that may have contained women and children. Ruthless? "The death of friends intensified the lust for revenge," recalls another veteran about Americans summarily executing most Japanese prisoners.
Not just any prisoners, though. Seeing themselves as descendants of a warrior class, these Japanese served in a military whose acts of savagery described here--from the infamous Bataan Death March to individual cases of rape and butchery--ranged far beyond the usual framework of warfare.
On the screen are pictures of a 13-year-old Filipino boy after being battered in the head with a steel bar and bayoneted. Then come three girls who were slashed after seeing their parents murdered, then a woman displaying a huge gash in her neck where an attempt was made to behead her. Then a white-haired Japanese veteran coolly expressing remorse for arbitrarily killing three innocent farmers with his sword.
"I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams blokes goin' in and doin' what they done," recalls a British veteran about Japanese troops randomly slaughtering wounded soldiers in a Singapore hospital.
No wonder, then, that the response was bitter and intense. We hear from Americans who enjoyed seeing wounded enemy troops suffer, plus another who recalls anticipating daylight "so you could shoot somebody."
And collect the spoils of war, as we hear of souvenir-hunting Americans cutting teeth from the jaws of dead Japanese. "I wince a little because I kept a skull," says one veteran. "It was almost an emblem of who we were"--and who the enemy was in the eyes of the Allies. That's epitomized by an Australian newsreel of U.S. guns sinking a Japanese convoy, then turning on survivors in lifeboats. "Bull's-eye," exclaims the narrator, "and more Japs meet their ancestors."
This was a time when the line separating good and evil was as clear to Americans as on Sept. 11, some of that driven by stereotyping as much related to racism as to Pearl Harbor. Who were these Japanese many Americans confidently expected to swiftly dispatch? A former GI recalls how he felt then: "They were small. They were bucktoothed. They wore glasses--very thick. They had silly grins on their faces, and they tended to have the stature of monkeys with long arms almost dragging to the ground."