Rabaul sits at the northern end of New Britain island, and is the capital of Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain Province. Physically, Rabaul looks like a South Pacific paradise. Its bay is actually the caldera of a volcano with subsidiary volcanos surrounding the water. They erupted last in 1994, destroying most of the town of Rabaul. A local seismologist told us that on the morning of the eruption, the peak of one of the volcanoes rose six meters in the course of just a few hours. The population fled into neighboring Gazelle province and towns like Kokopo further down the bay. The continuing threat of further eruptions forced the government to relocate the population in zones further away from the volcano, which was supported by a successful World Bank project.
Rabaul became famous during World War II because it was the main Japanese forward operating base for the southeastern Pacific. The Japanese dug 300 kilometers of tunnels into the volcanic soil around Rabaul and put barracks, clinics, maintenance facilities, and ammunition dumps underground. The entrances to these tunnels are clearly visible and have become a tourist attraction, especially now for elderly Japanese who want to visit the graves of their friends and relatives. There are wrecks of perhaps thirty or forty Japanese ships in the bay, and diving to see them is a popular tourist pastime.
Some of the most famous battles of the war were fought in this region. The Battle of Coral Sea, the first naval engagement between carrier battle groups that never appeared within visual range of one another, took place as the Japanese tried to come around the eastern side to Papua New Guinea to take Port Moresby. They dragged an infantry division across the 11,000 foot Owen Stanley range to approach Moresby from the north. The Japanese also tried to block the naval approaches to Australia by pushing southeastward into the Solomon Islands, leading to the prolonged and bloody battles the Marines fought on Guadalcanal and Bougainville.
Visting Rabaul over the summer inspired me to rent DVDs of the series Victory at Sea that was produced in 1952, the year I was born. The episodes were made by NBC in collaboration with the US Navy, and narrated by Leonard Graves. I remember watching the black-and-white series on television as a child, and still own a record of the stirring Richard Rogers soundtrack. It is a fascinating contrast to the Ken Burns series on World War II that has been airing recently on PBS (see the American Interest interview with him)—it is, I suppose, the kind of propagandistic celebration of the war that he deliberately wanted to avoid. Victory at Sea is also not always on the up-and-up, mixing clips from Hollywood movies in with documentary footage. But the series contains some of the most spectacular newsreel footage ever recorded. One of the most vivid shows a stricken Hornet landing on the deck of a carrier, crashing and exploding, with the deck crew then literally leaping into the flames to rescue the pilot. And while it sanitizes the war in many ways, it also contains some poignant scenes, like Japanese mothers being handed the ashes of their sons killed in battle.
What is most striking to me about the 1952 series is its unabashed celebration of collectivism. Americans have two completely divergent ways of seeing themselves, the first as a nation of individualists who fiercely resist authority and strike out for themselves, the second as a united and indivisible nation seeking a common objective. Victory at Sea’s episode about Guadalcanal talks about the long, heroic struggle of the Marines on the island once Japanese airpower cut them off from their sources of supply. But unlike the Ken Burns movie, it never presents the story from the standpoint of a single individual. At the height of the battle, the film rather strangely cuts away from the jungle to scenes of American economic might—wheat fields, steel mills, truck factories, warehouses overflowing with supplies, airplanes coming off the assembly line, and then crowds of faceless Americans in factories, offices, and farms, concluding with soldiers parading in lock step to Rogers’ memorable Guadalcanal March.
The series’ emphasis on the home front is particularly interesting: the humblest office clerk or assembly line worker was dignified by being part of a national project much larger than him or herself. Similar films could have been and were made in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. The collectivism of the war effort is something that has entered America’s national consciousness, and is one of the reasons for people still remembering this a “the good war.”
It goes without saying that none of America’s wars since then have inspired this degree of innocent championing of American unity and common purpose. Korea, Vietnam, and the current Iraq war have been far more divisive. There were celebratory films made about the 1991 Gulf War, but that was a war fought by professional soldiers cut off from a home front that neither participated nor was asked to sacrifice. The cynicism bred by Vietnam has returned in full force as a result of the current war in Iraq, and one wonders whether there will ever be a national struggle in the future that will be commemorated in the manner of Victory at Sea.
The Marines have lost a thousand men in Anbar province over the past few years. Their story is every bit as heroic as those who fought on Guadalcanal, but I suspect that they will be remembered more like their heroic compatriots in I Corps during Vietnam—not as typical representatives of a great and united people, but as individuals caught in a strange and incomprehensible struggle.