Overcoming Evil: More Lessons from The Pacific

As I mentioned in another post, I’ve been watching The Pacific, HBO’s excellent 10-part depiction of the Pacific theater of World War II. The series follows the lives of three Marines who fought in the fierce and horrendous battles over the islands of Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. The Pacific is based mostly on the memoirs of Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge.

As I talked about last time, Leckie dealt with the war in a mostly external fashion. He had outbursts, became insubordinate and struggled to find good relational boundaries. In contrast, Sledge turned inward and his struggle was with how to retain his humanity in The Pacific - Sledgethe midst of evil. Throughout Sledge’s story, we watched many of the men in his company do morally reprehensible (evil) acts or merely turn a blind eye toward the suffering of others. What struck me the most though was that the majority of these soldiers were not monsters. They were decent, loyal, and hard-working men who, both before and after the war, were the epitome of normal. How then did they end up doing such horrific things?

While I think the answer to the question of why people engage in evil is quite complicated, Sledge’s narrative seemed to point to two very significant factors: emotional unavailability and a lack of empathy. The type of warfare that occurred in the Pacific theatre caused the soldiers to experience a lot of overwhelming emotions. In addition to the constant physical sensations of hunger, fatigue, discomfort and pain, they often experienced crushing feelings of terror, grief, and anger.

Given the relentless nature of the warfare, there was no opportunity for them to absorb or process these emotions but instead they had to “soldier on” (as the saying goes). Thus, with such a tremendous assault on their bodies and emotions and no way to relieve it, many just became numb and, as such, the horror they would generally feel when seeing or doing evil became conspicuously absent.

The other and probably more important factor involved in the evil acts of American soldiers was a distinct lack of empathy, especially for the Japanese people. It is well-known that one of the tools used to prepare people for war is demonization of the enemy. This was the point of the U.S. propaganda against the Japanese and it worked very well.

Over and over again, The Pacific showed how the American people and especially the American soldiers were told that the Japanese culture was primitive, cold, and incomprehensible and, as such, much less than our own. In the Us against Them scenario that such a tactic created, it was easy for people to decide that they would do whatever it took for Us to prevail because They were unworthy. Moreover, once the soldiers started seeing the Japanese people as something less than human, it became even easier to commit atrocities or be unkind towards them.

What I took away from Sledge’s story is that evil occurs whenever people are pushed away from their humanity: when they cannot feel their emotions or empathize with others. While my work does not (thank goodness) deal with evil like killing or the desecration of dead bodies, I do see the impact of it on a lesser scale or what we in the counseling world call empathic failures. These are things like difficulty connecting with others, relational ruptures, inappropriate parental discipline or even something as seemingly minor as ineffective communication. Empathic failures usually occur because either one or both people are not putting themselves in the other’s place and things end up going nowhere.

Early in my career, I was supervising a beginning counselor and it was not going well. She casually dismissed most of my suggestions and I was getting frustrated with our inability to connect. Finally, I decided to put myself in her place and approached our consultations from that perspective. Lo and behold, it worked like a charm! In my efforts to empathize, I found myself listening more closely to what she was saying and she relaxed once she realized she was truly being heard.

From that experience, I realized that empathy is a vital factor in good relationships. Facilitating empathy in myself has helped me be a better mother, wife, psychologist, colleague, friend and family member but, as with everything else, it isn’t easy. It does require quite a bit of effort but the end result of increased intimacy with myself (because empathy involves being in tune with my emotions) and with others is worth it. The even better news is that, although experiencing empathy is not effortless, we seem to be biologically wired for it. In fact, it is believed that empathy is 2/3 innate and 1/3 learned. Thus, people who do not have as much natural empathy can be taught how to experience it and those who have a lot of empathy from birth can enhance the amount they feel.

We also can relearn the empathy we may have lost somewhere along the way. This is what I think Eugene Sledge and his fellow soldiers did after the war. In the final episode of The Pacific, we see the returning soldiers begin the process of regaining their humanity. Each one of the survivors started allowing themselves to feel, to heal and, whenever possible, to empathize with others. In that way, they were overcoming evil and then were able to truly come home.

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