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Monday, August 7, 2017

August 7, 2017: AmericanStudying the Pacific: Guadalcanal



[August 7th marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major Allied offensive against Japan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five aspects of the war’s Pacific Theater, starting with that 1942 battle.]
On three texts that can help us AmericanStudy a lengthy, pivotal military campaign.
1)      Kawaguchi’s quote: “Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army.” So stated Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of the first Japanese infantry brigade to attempt to retake the island after the Allied occupation. The back and forth battle for control of Guadalcanal, its strategically crucial Henderson (air)Field, and other neighboring Solomon Islands would stretch from August 1942 through February 1943, with any number of moments and conflicts that could have provided turning points in an alternative history of not only this campaign but the war’s (and world’s) future more broadly. Yet ultimately the result was the result—and as the Pacific Theater’s first truly substantive battle, that result fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the region and the war. Although of course the war would go on for two and a half more long and highly contested years, Kawaguchi’s quote helps us understand just how much the die was cast at Guadalcanal.
2)      Guadalcanal Diary (1943): In a strikingly new development in war journalism, International News Service correspondent Richard Tregaskis accompanied the Allied forces for months in the early stages of the battle, documenting both everyday experiences and the campaign’s biggest moments. The resulting book was published in January 1943, before the campaign had even concluded, and respresented a more immediate and grounded portrayal of war than any prior American text. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more factually or historically accurate—the book is a personal memoir, as its title suggests, and so the same uncertainties of memory and truth that accompany any personal narrative apply—but the rawness and honesty of its perspective and details offers a kind of experiential accuracy nonetheless. This is what the campaign felt like, to a man who lived it and the men with whom he shared it. In November a Hollywood film adaptation of the book would be released, and it too felt more personal than most of the war’s big-budget blockbusters; but there’s no beating the book for that raw representation of wartime experiences.
3)      The Thin Red Line (1962): James Jones’s fourth novel was based, as were a number of his novels before and after (including his most famous, From Here to Eternity [1951]), on his experiences in World War II’s Pacific Theater; Thin in particular focuses on three battles from the Guadalcanal campaign. Although Terence Malick’s controversial 1998 film adaptation of the novel certainly amplifies these qualities, the book too is far more detached and (at times) dreamlike than Tregaskis’ journalistic text. It balances those aspects, however, with some of the most gritty and realistic depictions of violence in any World War II novel, leading military historian John Keegan to call it (in his 1983 book The Face of Battle) one of the two best literary portrayals of the war. In its naturalistic depiction of a battle and war that are far bigger than any of their individual participants, Jones’s book also compares favorably to such classics as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). This is a vital war novel for perhaps the Pacific Theater’s most vital battle.
Next PacificStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of the Pacific Theater you’d highlight?

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