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Spartacus, The Pacific, and the “Last of the Romans”

Hell In The Pacific

The Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks mega-million-dollar production of The Pacific follows the mood and style of Band of Brothers. And for the most part that is good (although it is hard for American 20-something suburban actors to master the gestures and cadences of a generation that came out of the Depression).

So far in two episodes — mostly on Guadalcanal (following the narrative of the Robert Leckie memoir) — the producers have captured well the mystery of that first major land offensive campaign. After all, it is still almost inexplicable how, just nine months after Pearl Harbor, fresh and mostly combat inexperienced American ground forces (largely the 1st Marine Division and later other Marine and Army divisions) slugged it out with, and annihilated, far more veteran Japanese battalions, when the second generation of superior American planes was not yet on line, logistics favored the Japanese, and the imperial fleet, even after Midway, still outnumbered the Americans in the eastern Pacific.

We often associate military superiority with Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, Caesar’s 10th Legion, the Knights of Malta, Napoleon’s Old Guard, Sherman’s Army of the West, or the creepy SS division of the Wehrmacht. But surely the record of the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific is nearly unrivaled — the Old Breed that was still talked about in reverential tones by later Marines on their way to Okinawa.

I noted in a prior posting the unfortunate remarks of Tom Hanks. Yet, so far in the series, the script seems even-handed, and we are not lectured, contra Hanks, that the animosity of American soldiers fighting to survive one more day supposedly reflected a national policy of preexisting racist hatred.

I’ll look mostly forward to the E.B. Sledge segments, the brilliant WW II memoirist, especially on Okinawa — perhaps the nastiest, more horrific battle in American history, or at least comparable to Antietam or the Bulge — whose 65th anniversary falls on April 1.

The Last of the Romans

What might offer a really tragic topic for a fascinating series — with a host of brilliant and merciless enemies like Khusrow the Persian, the Vandal Gelimer, Vittigis and Totila the Goths, and Zabergan the Hun?

Why not the saga of the Byzantine general Belisarius? His 30 year career (529-559) saw the Last of the Romans (a native Latin speaker from Thrace) fighting to save the beleaguered eastern empire in Mesopotamia against the Persians, only to return home to rescue his emperor Justinian from the Nika riots in the Hippodrome. Then he left for North Africa and in months destroyed the century-long Vandal Empire whose ravages so underline the last thoughts of Augustine. After that he sailed for Sicily, and for a time reclaimed the idea of Roman Italy from the Po to southern Sicily — only to go eastward again to meet the Persians, and then back again to a now collapsing Italy, and then, of course, back to Constantinople to internal exile, trials, and humiliation, only in forced retirement to save the city from a raid of Huns that earned him another rebuke — all during a time that saw deteriorating Byzantine power, chaos in the defunct Western Empire, a raging bubonic plague that killed 300,000 in Constantinople, the dome of Santa Sophia collapsed and for a time in ruins, and an emperor Justinian and his often lethal wife Theodora who alternately rewarded, recalled, punished, ruined, incarcerated, and reprieved the old general, whose conniving older wife Antonia, a court intimate of Theodora, at times tried to protect her spouse, at times seemed as much against as for him.

Had Belisarius not been recalled so frequently by his serially suspicious emperor, and even more often shorted of supplies, he might well have pulled off Justinian’s grand dream of reuniting most of the West into a reconstituted Roman Empire (mad, but not entirely mad, given the inherent weakness of the rule of the Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, and Franks). And for all the charges of insubordination and treachery, in the end the old Byzantine general was more loyal to his emperor than any in his immediate circle, and fair-handed to local populations in an age of violence and banditry.

If Mel Gibson is looking for a script, it offers far more potential than even did William Wallace.

And that’s that — I think all of us needed a break from the health-care mess and the growing storm clouds of debt on the horizon.

Subscript. Some have remarked about my February 2009 “The Impending  Obama Meltdown,” written weeks after the President was inaugurated and at the height of his popularity. I’m afraid I retract nothing, nada. The passage of health care proves little yet, other than its enactment required the most blatant practices of political bribery and legislative manipulation in memory. That ends-justify-the-means win is going to come back to haunt the Democrats for generations when they are in the minority and seek its traditional, but now discredited, sanctuaries.

So far, Obama & Co. have suffered the most rapid decline in polling history of any first-year administration, from around 68% to below 50% in a mere year, and is looking at a large correction, perhaps of historical proportions, in the 2010 referenda. That seems to me enough of a meltdown — well aside from $2 trillion added in additional debt, near 10% unemployment, a neutralist foreign policy, and the most polarized divide in contemporary society since the era of Richard Nixon, mostly brought on by Obama’s campaign pledges of  centrist governance followed by a hard left domestic agenda.