In his New Yorker piece titled, Hellhole, Atul Gawande describes what happens to prisoners in solitary confinement.
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again. [HELLHOLE]
War can be equally fatal on the mind. There is a scene in The Pacific where an American soldier is seen casually throwing stones into the blown up head of another soldiers as if it were a dustbin.In another when they are waiting in the dark for the Japanese, a soldier panics and shouts and the others kill him with the comment, “Better him than all of us”. Another soldier just blows his brains out unable to take it anymore.
The HBO miniseries, The Pacific, is about the American war against Japan, fought in various islands in the Pacific Ocean following Pearl Harbor. It follows the lives of three soldiers — Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone — as they fight battles in tiny previously unheard islands, facing not just the Japs, but their own minds as well. The series is based on With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie as well as the memoir of a marine who fought along with Basilone.
Basilone, a gunnery sergeant, was sent to Guadalcanal where he successfully repelled a Japanese attack on the American lines; Basilone single-handedly kept firing at them, thus denying them a victory. This made him an instantly recognizable hero in America where he is sent to sell war bonds. Being a soldier selling war bonds is not to his liking. He enlists again and is sent to Iwo Jima along with 30,000 marines; he is killed on the first day.
Robert Leckie too was present in Guadalcanal witnessing the carnage and he writes about it to his neighbor Vera. Also during an R&R in Australia, he courts a Greek immigrant Stella, but eventually Stella breaks up with him as she knows his fate. Eugene Sledge could not initially join the war since he had a heart murmur, but he eventually joins. On the island of Pavuvu, he catches enuresis and almost loses his mind. He has a debate with Leckie on faith and God. Sledge is then involved in the capture of the airfield on the Peleliu. Once the beach is secured, they attempt to cross the airfield and face heavy gun fire. He gets shot and is evacuated to their ship.
He comes back again and faces battles where they face Japanese gun fire from the caves. The Japanese had built tunnels in the coral mountains and the intelligence had no clue. In a month of fighting, there were 6500 casualties, but the island was not used again. The final battle is fought in Okinawa and they hear about a new bomb which was dropped in Japan ending the war.
Following the first attack on American soil by a foreign power since 1812, there was heavy enthusiasm among Americans to enlist to fight the Japanese, but these young men did not know what they were getting into. The enemy was not just the ‘Japs’, but the tropical jungle where they had to face non-stop rains, leeches, crabs, rats, and poisoned water supplies.This has to be contrasted with the battle locations shown in the other HBO series, Band of Brothers, which was fought mostly in the towns of Europe.
The war has been presented unlike anything I have seen before on screen. It delivers a simple message visually: war is hell. It is an expensive HBO production and with executive producers like Tom Hanks and Steven Speilberg, no compromise was made in recreating the battles; the level of detail present in the Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan is there in each episode. It is not a sanitized version of history; the crimes on both sides are depicted.
But what gives depth to the series, is how the war affects the mind. In Okinawa, where the Japanese used human shields, there is a scene when Sledge and “Snafu” hear a baby cry from a hut. They are not sure if it is a trap. They had been in one instance before where a woman who was booby trapped was sent with a crying baby into the midst of American soldiers and they had to shoot her. This time they walk into the hut and find a baby crying and the mother dead. They stand unsure what to do. The tension is palpable. Right then another soldier walks in and carries the baby away. In the same hut another wounded Japanese woman asks Sledge to shoot her and lifts his gun to her forehead.
The series ends with Leckie, Sledge and his companions coming back home. They have to decide what to do. Leckie finds a job as a reporter and marries the girl to whom he was writing all those letters. Sledge is unable to decide what to do. He says he will never wear the uniform again and breaks down on a hunting trip; he says will never be able to shoot again.