The Greatest Generation fought on two fronts, of course, although the one across the Atlantic receives more of the spotlight. This NBC Memorial Day special, made for the National D-Day Museum and exec produced by Steven Spielberg and Stephen Ambrose, seeks to rectify some of the inequity by focusing attention on the Pacific theater in World War II. “Price for Peace” is a classy effort, filled with mesmerizing archival footage and narrated from the point of view of ordinary fighting men, both American and Japanese.
The war in Europe tends to absorb much of our attention in part because it’s easier to place in a straightforward dramatic framework. Hitler’s a phenomenal and well-photographed villain, the various key points in the war effort are clear and climactic and the victory is unblemished by questions about the use of nuclear weapons.
Pearl Harbor provides the war in Japan a clear starting point, and “Price for Peace” effectively captures the galvanizing national anger that followed the attack. But from that clear launch, the Pacific war proceeded without the same dramatic punch as the fighting in Europe. The U.S. military fought a large number of island battles — there were over 100 D-Days in the Pacific, Ambrose informs us — against an enemy we simply didn’t understand as well as we did the Germans. In the doc, Japanese soldiers tell us of their sense of honor and their certainty that U.S. soldiers were ready to rape and pillage; Americans fill us in on their puzzlement over and fear of kamikaze pilots, that era’s version of the suicide bomber.
The smaller battles that brought the U.S. military closer to the Japanese mainland never led up to a final ground attack, of course. This film gives a nod to the different points of view about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Film doesn’t linger on the issue — this is not by any means its subject — and given its primary perspective of young, scared American kids who watched so many colleagues get killed, it clearly lands on the side of justifying the nuclear attacks.
It’s the successful capturing of what it was like to be one of those kids fighting on those beaches — on Bougainville, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Okinawa, Iwo Jima — that makes “Price for Peace” worth watching. Film and still photographs from the different islands combine in lucid fashion with the interviews to paint a potent picture.
Film ends on a tone of reconciliation as U.S. vets return to the islands where they fought, often meeting and befriending their one-time foes. Nathan Wang’s original music lifts but never overpowers the human emotions.
Tom Brokaw’s wraparound material ends by drawing a direct line between the challenges facing the Greatest Generation and those confronting the nation today.