"History is full of wars fought for a hundred reasons. But this war - our war - well, I want to believe - I have to believe - that if I step across that airfield, every man that's wounded, every man I lose, that it's all worthwhile because our cause is just. 'Course, if a just cause came with hot food and some water, that'd be okay, too." -Ack-Ack HaldaneI once interviewed CBS football analyst Phil Simms the day after a game where a punt returner got completely crushed by a defender a split-second after he caught the ball. We talked about that play, and I marveled that any human being could do a job where such a thing is required. Simms, who knew a thing or 12 about getting hit from his days as the Giants' quarterback, looked at me with the disappointment of a man who's spent a lifetime talking with people who don't understand the game he used to play, and said, "There's no choice. You don't think about it; you just do it, because that's the game."
I thought a lot about Simms' comment as I watched the Marines try to cross the Peleliu airfield in Part Six. Obviously, getting shot at by the Japanese is infinitely more dangerous than getting sacked by Reggie White, but watching the brutal airfield sequence, all I could think was, "How do men do this? How do they just run across a this killing zone?" And then I thought, like Simms said, "What other choice do they have? These are their orders, and this is what men in combat do."
"Part Six," directed by Tony To and shot once again by Remi Adefarasin, featured perhaps the most intense combat yet in "The Pacific." We got a taste of the savagery of Peleliu last week, but a lot of that episode was spent with the men enjoying some downtime on Pavuvu. Here, there's no let-up, no escape, unless you're someone like Leckie or Runner, who get hurt badly enough to be sent away on a Navy ship, but not killed.
Leckie gets taken out of action (leaving Sledge as the only one of our main characters still in the field), and there's that great moment on the ship where he's relieved to find Runner and says that he didn't abandon him, but got hurt looking for a corpsman to save him, and Runner tells him he doesn't need to say anything. Because that's another thing about being in combat with someone: you know them better than almost anyone else on the planet, and you know if they're the type who would run out of fear or the type who would run for help. By this point, Runner and Leckie have been through so much together that there's no doubt in Runner's mind what Leckie was up to. Very nice work by James Badge Dale, and by Keith Nobbs as Runner.
While Leckie's war is over for now, Sledge's is only getting worse, just as old buddy Sid feared, even as he tried to convince Eugene's parents otherwise on his return to Alabama.
As Sledge's unit moves across the airfield and then into the hills on Peleliu, we see again and again how savage, and how random, combat can be. Sledge goes back to help the fallen Snafu, and in the process another Marine dies while carrying the mortar that Sledge put down. At night, one Marine is so emotionally scarred from what he's seen so far on the island that he can't stop screaming, even when restrained and injected with morphine. The danger of giving away their position (and, though it's not exactly stated, of spurring panic in the rest of the men) becomes so great that the Marines have no choice but to kill the poor bastard with a shovel. (This really happened in front of Sledge.)
As Sledge, no longer innocent after only a few days of action, reluctantly tells Snafu, "I guess better him than all of us."
Yet despite isolated incidents of panic, brutal conditions, a lack of supplies and unbelievably fierce fighting in the daytime, most of the men aren't cracking under all of this. When one of Sledge's buddies admits he still has a little bit of precious water in his canteen, he passes it around, and every man takes only his small share. When the Marines aboard a transport vehicle won't take away the wounded men from Sledge's unit, the officers stand in front of the truck to block its passage until the wounded are loaded aboard. And when Sledge's CO Ack-Ack Haldane realizes his orders are going to get his men killed, he heads back to battalion and gets them changed.
If you go into a battle as horrible as the one on Peleliu, you don't always have a choice about where you have to go and what obstacles you have to get past. But if you're able to keep your wits about you, and are very lucky indeed, maybe you can make it to the other side in one piece.
Some other thoughts
• As mentioned above, this one was directed by Tony To, who's been a part of the Tom Hanks/HBO gang going back to "From the Earth to the Moon." Fienberg interviewed James Badge Dale before the miniseries began, and Dale gives a great account of the day everyone on set warned him, "Tony's To's gonna blow you up." Fair warning: the interview gives away some things about Leckie post-Peleliu, which we won't be discussing here.
• The green screen shot at the end on the boat is the first effect of the series that doesn't look all that convincing. Given how incredible the rest of the hour looks, I'll allow it.
• Bit by bit, we've been seeing the shots from the opening title sequence turn up in the episodes, and here we get a big one, with Leckie making his way back across the airfield while gravel and debris flies all around.
• Sledge actually picked up the "Sledgehammer" nickname in basic training, but it was still a good moment for the slightly fictionalized Sledge and Snafu for Snafu to bestow it upon him here as semi-stated thanks for saving his life. (And in real life, the basic training nickname was half-mocking; here, it's a compliment to his fortitude in battle.)
• And speaking of nicknames, nice callback for Runner to call Leckie "Peaches" when they find each other on the ship.
Once again, as alluded to above, we're not going to talk about events that took place after what's depicted in this episode, and specifically treating the fates of Sledge, Leckie and Basilone as spoilers. But with that in mind, what did everybody else think?