Book Review: The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose

This is quite a hefty book to lug around to and from shifts, but definitely worth the extra weight in my bag.

I have to admit, my knowledge of the Pacific front in the Second World War is limited. I think in the UK we make more of a deal about the war in Europe, probably because it was closer and more of a threat, and the Nazis are a more obvious  villain.

The Japanese, from what I know about their conduct in the war, were pretty evil, but the war with them seems to be a more traditional country-vs-country conflict regarding land, whereas the war against the Nazis is an idealogical thing, a war against fascism, and more obviously a tale of good-vs-evil.

Ambrose is the son of Stephen E Ambrose, a phenomenal historical writer who’s work I’ve read a fair bit of, and is probably best known for writing Band Of Brothers. The older Ambrose wrote thrilling, in depth and entertaining histories of World War 2 and his son appears to be a chip off the old block.

The book follows five different American servicemen through the war, as each has different experiences of the conflict, although there are certain themes that crop up in all of them- heroism, the horrors of war and the camaraderie between the men.

Through these five stories we see many different facets of the conflict- the horrors of the Japanese POW camps, major battles, the frustration of an eager young man who has to wait to enlist and the discomfort of a man forced into the limelight as he is paraded as a propaganda tool.

The men are all admirable, showing courage and a sense of duty that I fear I would never be able to find within myself. But they are also wonderfully human- they don’t always fit in with their comrades, they have negative emotions and struggle with what they come into contact with.

One of the characters (is that the right word in the context of a non-fiction book?) is “Manila” John Basilone, and it is him I warmed to the most. A laid back, full of life, decent bloke who loved his job in the Marine Corps, who performs heroically during battle and is awarded the Medal of Honor. He returns to the US where he becomes a celebrity and part of the drive for War Bonds. Yet, while he has done his part he feels uncomfortable and almost guilty with the praise heaped upon him while his fellow marines continue to fight, which is a sign of touching, admirable humility and modesty. His request to return to the frontline is even more admirable, and it is his name and heroism is probably what I’ll remember most from this book.

But in a way, I found it more interesting that I found it genuinely hard to warm to one of the other principle characters- Eugene Sledge. Sledge is unable to enlist right away due to his parents refusing to give him permission and he is extremely frustrated about this. What I found difficult about him was his almost childish optimism and naivety. The judgements he passes on the army and his fellow marines’ extracurricular activites grated as did his letters home, where he routinely asks his parents to send him stuff.

Yet in a way, Sledge becomes the most fascinating character. The horrors he witness leads him to shed many of these views and becomes a more grown up. The transformation from fresh-faced, idealistic rookie to jaded veteran perhaps evidences the effects of war the best. His privelleged ba ckground marks him out from his rougher brothers in arms, and I felt that he developed the most over the course of the war.

Its what happens after the war that intrigues me as well, with Sledge setting himself up but still carrying the scars of the war within him. Most effecting is the fact that for the rest of his life he remained in a state of constant alertness, as the following passage shows:

Gene’s aunt warned her never to wake her husband by touching him- he would instantly leap to her throat. Jeanne learned to put her lips close to his ear and whisper “Sledgehammer”. His eyes would snap open”

The long lasting psychological effects of war are something I don’t usually associate with the second world war. Its something I think of in terms of the nightmares of Vietnam or the senseless horrors of the first world war.

I think being raised on a diet of John Wayne films has transformed my view of the men who fought in World War 2 into larger than life heroes who never experienced doubt or fear, sharing a laugh moments after a battle.

In a way this robs the men of their heroism, and it is only in seeing them as regular, human beings with flaws and weaknesses that we can truly appreciate their heroism and sacrifice.

Apparently Sledge wrote his own account of his experiences and I’d be interested to hear more about him from his own perspective.

Verdict: An engrossing epic that details the Pacific campaign, in a fascinating way. Ambrose’s selection of protagonists is clever and gives a more rounded view of the entire experience. 8/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO


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