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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Pacific's' Tom Hanks: The right wing's new boogeyman

March 12, 2010 |  1:31 pm

Poor Tom Hanks. He was purring along, sounding like a younger version of Hal Holbrook in Douglas Brinkley's positively reverent Time magazine cover story--the one where Brinkley calls Hanks "American history's highest-profile professor"--until the penultimate graph of the story, timed to tout HBO's new series, "The Pacific," which debuts Sunday night at 9 p.m. That's when disaster, of a kind, struck. After spending thousands of words paying tribute to the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Pacific theater (like Hanks' dad, who was a naval mechanic there), Hanks suddenly veered off course, going from being a gauzy celebrator of the importance of studying history to an unruly political activist.

ET-Hanks

"Back in World War II," he told Brinkley, "we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?" In a separate interview, Hanks referred to the war in the Pacific as one of "racism and terror."

Well, that was enough to set off alarm bells everywhere in the right-wing blogosphere. It was bad enough that the worshipful tone of the Time cover aroused dark suspicions among media critics about the whole thing being a hype job, since Time and HBO are sister companies both owned by Time Warner. But conservatives were in an uproar, no doubt made worse by the fact that "Green Zone," the Matt Damon film opening this weekend, is already a subject of right-wing attacks for its critical portrayal of Bush-era American bungling in Iraq.

But World War II is sacred ground, so the fact that Hanks--who has been treated with respect from the right in the past, largely thanks to his "Band of Brothers" series--was using the greatest war of all as a way to disparage today's war on terror was viewed with horror. In a blog post titled "Is Tom Hanks Unhinged?," Pajamas Media's Victor Davis Hanson got right to the point: "Hanks' comments were sadly infantile pop philosophizing offered by, well, an ignoramus. Hanks thinks he is trying to explain the multi-faceted Pacific theater in terms of a war brought on by and fought through racial animosity. That is ludicrous."

The New York Post's Kyle Smith was also up in arms. Responding to another Hanks quote, where the actor-producer said that the only way to complete one of the island-hopping battles against the Japanese was "to kill them all," Smith offers this retort: "Does Hanks think the War on Terror is about killing all Muslims? Or is he saying the Muslims want to kill all Christians, as indeed the Koran invites them to do? Could it be that Hanks thinks it is the U.S. that deployed 'racism and terror' in the cause of defeating an enemy that attacked us? ... He is genuinely interested in U.S. history and yet when he reads about the heroism, the moral authority and the sacrifice something shorts out in his soggy liberal mind."

Brad Schaeffer, writing on FrumForum, also got in a few digs, writing: "Perhaps the most ignorant observation Mr. Hanks makes, however, is his comparison to our modern day war against terror. To make the claim that we are waging war on Islamofascists because, presumably, we view Muslims as 'different' not only is an insult to the nation but betrays a stunning ignorance of contemporary history.... So in answer to Hanks' question: 'Does [killing those different from us] sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?' I can answer that--NO!" 

I certainly have no intention of dragging all of us through a complex history lesson here, but I suspect that both sides have fair points here. It seems totally disingenuous for conservatives to argue that the war on terror hasn't inspired all sorts of bigoted and ignorant attacks on innocent, devout Muslims, especially when a host of right-wing wack jobs, in an attempt to discredit and demonize Barack Obama, have based their argument around the claim that the president was himself Muslim.

On the other hand, I think Hanks is on dangerous ground trying to compare and contrast our attitudes toward the Japanese during World War II with our attitude toward today's bloodthirsty terrorists. As some of the conservative commentators have pointed out, the Japanese military had plenty of racist tendencies of its own, having waged a brutish war against its Chinese neighbors long before it launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

All war is hell, just in a different form for each generation. And its always difficult to judge whether horrible deeds, done in the heat of battle, were right or wrong. On the wall of my office I have a photo of my Uncle B.B., who also fought in the Pacific. The picture was taken in New Britain, near the Solomon Islands, after his unit had landed there in 1944. In a letter that accompanied the photo he explained: "We had pushed all the Japs back into an enclave known as Rabaul and left them, without supplies, to starve until the end of the war."

I don't think he said it with pride or with any regrets. War wasn't so complicated back then. Men like my uncle figured they were doing what they had to do to survive. But today's wars, fought so far away and with such harder to define goals, aren't so simple, which is probably why Tom Hanks should have just stayed on safe ground and stuck to talking about history, instead of trying to wrestle with how it might apply to today's battles. When you talk about war today, everyone wants to pick a fight with you.  

Photo: Tom Hanks. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press

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