Hugh Ambrose on The Pacific

Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared in the Barnes & Noble Review in March of 2010.

 

Six months before his death from lung cancer in 2002, bestselling historian Stephen Ambrose said, "I would like to have Hugh finish that book for me. It's not going to just fade away. It's going to see the light of day one way or the other."

 

"That book" was a history of the World War Two battles in the Pacific; and "Hugh" was Ambrose's son and frequent collaborator. Now, ten years after father and son started sifting through 87 boxes of material and hundreds of interviews, oral histories, letters, diaries and memoirs, The Pacific is finally reaching its audience -- both in bookstores and in the HBO miniseries, produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goeztman, the same team which brought Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers to the screen.

 

Hugh Ambrose, who served as a project consultant on The Pacific, is quick to point out that they did not set out to make Band of Brothers II and that the new miniseries (with an estimated price tag of nearly $200 million) is about "a different war with a different ethos."

 

While the 10-part HBO series focuses primarily on three marines -- Robert Leckie, Eugene B. Sledge and Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone -- Ambrose's companion book expands the cast to include Navy pilot Mike Micheel, Sledge's childhood friend and fellow marine Sid Phillips, and marine Captain Austin "Shifty" Shofner who spent nearly a year in a POW camp in the Philippines. The book is a straightforward and often harrowing account of the combat which served as the flip-side to the Army-dominated operations on the other side of the globe in Europe and North Africa. The Pacific aims to dispel the cozy, jokey images of South Pacific, Mister Roberts and McHale's Navy with intense scenes featuring brutalities on both the American and Japanese sides. There are palm trees and native girls, but there are also beheadings, artillery barrages and at least one scene in the book where Japanese soldiers use American corpses for bayonet practice.

 

Though he'd assisted his father with research on every book since the bestselling account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage, this is the first time Hugh's name will be on the front cover and, with a son's reticence, he said he thinks his father would be proud of what he accomplished. I met with Hugh on the eve of his book tour in his home in Helena, Montana -- just a few miles from where Lewis and Clark passed 200 years earlier. Fresh-fallen snow dusted the mountain which rises behind Ambrose's house -- a far cry from the humid coral beaches of The Pacific--David Abrams

 

The Barnes and Noble Review: Though World War Two essentially began in the Pacific Ocean at Pearl Harbor, it often seems that the collective consciousness of our generation boils the war down to two words: "defeating Hitler." I'm willing to wager that if you stop ten people on the street and ask them to name three major battles of the Pacific War, only a handful could do so. Is this one of the challenges you faced? And what was your own journey of discovery with the Pacific theater of operations?  

 

Hugh Ambrose: My journey started 10 years ago one evening when we were done with the day's work and my father said, essentially, he was finished with Europe. He'd written books on Eisenhower, D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and others. There was a lot of great work still to be done, but he was going to leave that to the next generation of historians. I said, "Well, Dad, why don't we do something on the Pacific?" He liked that idea and thought it would be of great interest. As you say, a lot of people really don't know this war and while we as military historians knew the basics, what my father and I now needed to do was become experts on the war and begin to find the story. While we were doing that, my father passed away and I was lucky enough to then begin working with HBO and DreamWorks on this project.

 

BNR: How much of your father is in this book? 

 

HA: I learned everything from my dad. I don't pretend to be as good as he was, but I tried to learn what I could. When I spoke to him years ago about doing a book on the Pacific War, our thought was that it would be similar to his books D-Day or Citizen Soldiers in which thousands of voices are melded into one compelling narrative. He was a genius at that, and those books are beautiful. When it came time for me to write this book, I certainly had thousands of voices in all the material, but ultimately I was fascinated by the powerful stories of these five individuals to tell everything that needed to be told.

 

BNR: The direct brevity of the title -- The Pacific -- seems to signal your intent to set this book apart from Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, as if those two words are all that need to be said for a conflict which proved to be vast and complex. In your view, how does the Pacific campaign differ from the one fought in Europe, and in what ways were they intertwined?

 

HA: When I think of the comparisons between the Pacific War and the European theater of operations, I'm more overwhelmed by the contrasts than anything else. In Europe, we were fighting a ground campaign, essentially from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. There was a logical, linear sense to it; it was almost entirely Army and it would result in the complete destruction of Hitler's government.


There is a simplicity that was entirely missing in the Pacific where the campaigns began earlier in 1941 and went on into 1945. The vast ocean of enmity (in the Pacific conflict) with all the different islands and all the different campaigns can be very overwhelming. So our challenge with The Pacific was to boil it down to its essence -- as much as you can in ten hours of TV. We wanted to take you from the first shot to the final battle.

 

BNR: The "first shot" meaning Pearl Harbor?

 

HA: No, the "first shot" meaning Guadalcanal. Pearl Harbor is alluded to, but it's that one seminal event every American knows something about. We sidestep it simply because we didn't want to begin our epic miniseries with something that feels tired and hackneyed. We had to move beyond Pearl Harbor to something else….I should also say that in the war against Nazi Germany, we knew one side would prevail; one side was going to win and the other side was going to capitulate.

 

In the war against Japan, very early on it was clear that one side was not going to surrender. So it became a battle of annihilation. In other words, in Europe, men would surrender when they ran out of bullets. This never happened in the war against Japan. That's a crucial difference because it produces a very different war with a level of ferocity that is unprecedented.

 

BNR: Would you say then that the war in the Pacific was more ferocious than the one fought in Europe?

 

HA: It can feel almost disrespectful to make a comparison about which war is more "ferocious." I would simply say that when you have to fight to the end, when you finally overtake a position and you have to walk around and shoot every enemy body in the head to make sure they're dead, you have moved beyond all semblance of human civilization and you are now at a level of brutality like that of the cavemen.

 

BNR: Will people see something like that when they tune in to The Pacific? 

 

HA: Viewers of the HBO miniseries should prepare themselves because we show the truth. We are not taking liberties to over-dramatize things, but it is very intense. The level of hatred, the level of ferocity at which these campaigns were conducted is all there.

 

BNR: I'm thinking particularly of passages in the book where you write "Near Sid's position, a sliver of shrapnel sliced off a man's head," or the sight of marine tanks rolling over the enemy bodies "piled two and three deep" and grinding them "into a meaty red pulp." That's a pretty far cry from "Bali Hai." 

 

HA: Yes, the book and the miniseries definitely take on a harder edge. Viewers will never criticize us for taking the easy way out.

 

BNR: Did you go to locations in the Pacific during your research?

 

HA: In 2000, my father and I went to all the places that are depicted in the book. We loved hanging out together and walking the battlefields. You get a clarity of understanding that you're just not going to get any other way. Google Earth and military maps and all those things are very useful, but standing there is going to give you a level of detail that you can get in no other way. It's a way of connecting at a deep level with those men and those places. Once the screenplay was green-lit, I was in a good position to take the producer, the art director and some screenwriters to the foxholes where these guys fought and let them get that same level of clarity. When you watch the series, the verisimilitude is just astonishing.

 

BNR: Choosing which moments of the war to include and which to leave on the cutting-room floor must have been a daunting task. Something is inevitably going to get short shrift.

 

HA: As much as anything, it was about how much can you do, how many people can you keep track of? You find a lot of different stories and there are a lot of different ways to tell those stories. We told ourselves, "You can't put things in there just so that it will be more complete." What's great about Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman is they have the courage to say "Okay, we can't make it about everything, so what do we have to make it about?" They knew not everybody was going to agree with the choices they made, but they were okay with that.

 

The basic backbone of the miniseries was found by the screenwriter Bruce McKenna, who wanted to know some good books about the Pacific, and I recommended E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed and I think someone else encouraged him to read Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow. He fell in love with these two books and said he really needed to talk to the Sledge family. So, I put him in touch, and he calls me back and says, "Guess what? Eugene Sledge's best friend was Sidney Phillips who was in the same company as Robert Leckie." So now we had a basic connection between the first part of the war (Guadalcanal) and the latter part of the war (Iwo Jima). That narrative thread then is what connects the first battle with the final shot.

 

What's great about this miniseries is that people are going to see how Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal are connected and how different they were. They'll see how the war changes, how the strategy changes, how the casualties skyrocket as we get closer to the end of the war -- which is almost counter-intuitive. That's the power of a miniseries or a book like mine -- to bring you a representative sampling of the war and allow you then to gain a basic comprehension of it.

 

BNR: In the book, I can see how you were working with this big-picture, individual-warrior mindset.

 

HA: As the HBO series coalesced, I really felt a duty as a historian to tell more of the story, to expand and broaden it by looking at enough of the war to merit the title The Pacific. This is not a biography of these individuals; these people are representative of a broader experience which became the fundamental event of the 20th century.

 

BNR: In the book The Pacific, you cross-cut between characters, rarely staying with one for more than three or four pages. Was this something you chose deliberately as a style, or did the material itself suggest it?

 

HA: When I found these voices to bring together, I really wanted that experience to happen with the speed and power at which it happened to the guys themselves. I decided that we would watch them all progress simultaneously through this war.

 

BNR: Your book focuses almost solely on the American perspective. Why did you choose not to examine the Japanese or the U.S. Allies' points of view? 

 

HA: Part of it was space -- any pages I devoted to the Japanese would give me less time to deal with what I think are these magnificent stories (of Americans) that I wanted to give in all their rich detail. But another part of it is that this book is very much about what the guys knew at the time. In other words, you are experiencing their war as they do -- which means there is hearsay and inaccuracies and a lot of unknowns. You watch them struggle through that and see how their survival depends on it. (Navy pilot) Mike Micheel didn't know how many Japanese carriers he was facing and so neither do we.

 

If you flip over to the Japanese side, then you get this whole other set of people I have to introduce you to, and you also get all this information about what was going to happen or where the enemy was or what size their bunkers were -- information that our guys didn't have….. While making the miniseries, our motto was "Under the Helmet" -- put the viewer, or reader, under the helmet with the soldier, sailor and marine.

 

BNR: Well, I can tell you, as someone who has never flown a dive-bombing mission or fired an artillery piece or charged across a coral beach with a rifle in my hand, your book really did immerse me in that experience.

 

HA: Thanks, I appreciate that.

 

BNR: You wrote "The war is the central character of the book and everyone else is in orbit around it." Yet, it's often the individual stories which help us form our feelings and knowledge about the war. What is the role of anecdote and story in shaping our understanding of the broad canvas of military history?

 

HA: I don't want to read a history book that doesn't have some beauty and humor and passion in it. I just don't think that humans are built that way. I love narrative history because I believe it can be every bit as informative as other ways of writing history; but when done well, it also takes you on this great journey and isn't banging you over the head with a thesis at the end of every paragraph. It's taking you along and showing you this truth.

 

BNR: Stepping back from past history for a moment, how do you think historians, decades from now, will judge our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What will that miniseries be like? 

 

HA: That's a good one. I can't tell you what their judgments will be. What I can tell you is, they'll look at why we went in, what was the motivation for Iraq and Afghanistan, how did we did interpret that mission and create a military campaign based upon that mission, how did our young people succeed in implementing those strategies, and then what did we do after we won or pulled out? Those are the basic constructs every war is judged by.


The only other thing I would say right now -- because it's obviously a big debate that's close to all of our hearts -- is that our men and women over there are amazing. We have the best military force in the world and they're trying extremely hard with the most complicated mission. All of the veterans from World War Two I've talked to have told me how they stand in awe of these tremendously talented young people.

 

BNR: Here we are, a few days after the Academy Awards, when The Hurt Locker took home Best Picture; but in the past six years there have been very few movies made about Iraq or Afghanistan. Compare that to the long list of movies Hollywood released between 1942 and 1945 -- cinematic warfare in near-real-time. Some of them, of course, were inaccurate and had a very specific patriotic agenda. How does contemporary popular culture influence a nation while a war is still raging?

 

HA: I really can't explain why people aren't going to see Iraq War movies or why the studios are reluctant to release them. When I was growing up, a lot of the films were dark depictions of Vietnam. There were a lot of very deep, very painful issues which were being worked out at the cultural level. One of the byproducts of those films was that young men like me believed Vietnam was bad because of the atrocities that Americans committed. By comparison, in World War Two movies, the good guys could run through bullets and the bad guys couldn't. That is something we've tried to correct with The Pacific, both the book and the miniseries. After watching or reading it, no one will ever again think of World War Two as this clean war that was good and beautiful.

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