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Lessons from ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ for today

The war in the Pacific holds the keys to addressing our problems today.

In this Jan. 19, 1945, photo, black smoke rises from burning targets at the Kawasaki aircraft plant in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, as U.S. planes bomb the factory facilities. The bombs stopped falling 75 years ago today. (AP) (AP)

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to American forces in World War II. According to the novelist James Michener in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tales of the South Pacific,” “the intensity, the inevitability, the grindingness of [The Pacific War] were too great for any one man to comprehend. It changed lives in every country in the world.” But even as the requirements of a world war have faded from contemporary memory, Michener’s novel is just as relevant for a country grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the push for racial justice. It shows how mass mobilization, national sacrifice and international cooperation were required to defeat a deadly enemy and offers a powerful statement about an imperfect nation, split between its uplifting democratic principles and its deep racial prejudices.

Michener began writing what would be become “Tales of the South Pacific” in a Quonset hut, nestled next to a primitive airstrip in New Caledonia. Writing in his free time from his duties in the U.S. Navy, he attempted to “to report the South Pacific as it actually was,” noting that “nothing in the manuscript is entirely fictitious.” He had a lot of material to draw on. Vanuatu became one of the largest U.S. bases in the South Pacific, and Michener’s official duties took him throughout the islands on inspection tours, supply runs and dispatch deliveries.

This travel gave Michener firsthand access to the devastation wrought by the Japanese, the heroism of the residents of the region and the great campaigns of the Americans. He became so well acquainted with the history and culture of the area and personally involved with so many of the Navy’s operations, that the Navy asked him to write the history of the war in the Pacific.

Those nonfiction efforts helped fuel his literary endeavor. His intent was to tell it like it was from his perspective as a White American fighting in the Pacific. And so he wrote a book that juxtaposed the personal, intimate nature of that war with the impersonal destructive forces at play. The stories range from vivid battle scenes that highlight the intense and terrifying choreography of violence, to the endless waiting that precedes battle. They involve the transportation of supplies over vast tracks of ocean, the endless efforts to steal some whiskey for a Christmas meal, the bloody fighting in PT boats, the complexity of preparation for and execution of an amphibious landing and the boundless heroism of the Seabees, who would construct fortifications, runways and ports while under enemy fire. Always tracking the emotional toll of waging war, the most memorable stories are those of the intense friendships, rivalries and love affairs of the individuals thrown together during the war.

This was a war of vast movement, but it was also one of endless waiting to get somewhere else. The unnamed narrator opens the book with the observation that “our war was waiting. You rotted on New Caledonia waiting for Guadalcanal. Then you sweated twenty pounds away in Guadal waiting for Bougainville. There were battles, of course. But they were flaming things of the bitter moment … then you relaxed and waited.” For Michener, the Pacific War was a combination of boredom, beauty, “timeless, repetitive waiting” and spasmodic violence and rapid movement.

To defeat Japan, America needed to project power all the way across the Pacific Ocean.

Fighting across this vast expanse was a staggering undertaking. For the war effort, American industry, converted almost overnight from civilian to wartime production, produced 1,556 naval ships, 5,777 merchant vessels, 8,410 jeeps, 299,293 airplanes, 2,383,311 trucks, 6.5 million rifles and 40 billion bullets between 1940 and 1945. In the Pacific, America had to traverse more than 7,000 miles of vast ocean and, as it did so, it built 111 major airstrips and 441 piers, tanks for the storage of 100 million gallons of gasoline and housing for 1.5 million men. All told, several million Americans served in the Pacific Theater, and more than 100,000 were killed in action.

In the end, it was mass mobilization and national sacrifice that made it possible to defeat a deadly and global challenge. Michener underscores the extraordinary effort required to project American power not just into the factories, but across the oceans, writing how American power flowed “from the farms, and towns, and cities all over America an unbroken line ran straight to the few who storm the blockhouses.”

These themes of collective sacrifice in service of a greater good continue to resonate three-quarters of a century later. For all the debates about the utility, sustainability and morality of America’s role in the world, and for all the discussion today of the harm being done to American leadership, it is worth recalling that there really was a moment when Americans helped to save the world. That victory, however, came at a great cost to all involved, both in the violence it inflicted and, as John Dower chronicled in his award-winning history “War Without Mercy,” in the racism which it unleashed.

That victory also depended on international alliances. While the Pacific War is frequently remembered as a solo American act, Michener’s novel is as a reminder that Australians, New Zealanders, Brits and Pacific Islanders fought and died alongside their American allies. America won the war in the Pacific and it did so not on its own but as part of a coalition that sacrificed, strove and achieved together in a spirit of collective resolve.

The novel also grapples with racial division, and in fact, this is the most prominent and most frequent theme. And it is the novel’s final story, “A Cemetery at Hoga Point,” that carries the most resonance. There, the narrator walks through a recently dug cemetery, visiting the graves of many of book’s characters. He encounters two African American soldiers, assigned by a racist officer to tend to these graves as punishment. But in their eyes, it is an honor, not a punishment, and these two men diligently serve as the custodians of American dignity, respecting all the graves equally. At one point, they come to the grave of a particularly revered commander, who had respected his men, fought against anti-Semitism in his unit and championed his African American soldiers. And yet, once he was killed, “a loud-mouthed bully came along to take his place,” who was undermining the hard-won cohesion of the unit and, through neglect, malice and sheer incompetence causing it “to fall apart at the seams.”

The story drives home the point that a promise of a free America is not a given and Michener concludes his novel by showing that Americans are a mixed lot, capable of achieving great things, and also of succumbing to prejudice and inflicting great violence on each other and against others.

Michener’s powerful story is a story of violence, of love, of division and unity, reminding us that America’s forward progress, and its fight against tyranny, has never been assured. Three quarters of a century after World War II’s conclusion, it is also a warning that America’s mission — at home and abroad — must be believed in and fought for.