Flags of Our Fathers

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4 stars
Everyone who has taken photographs knows that sometimes you get a great picture by pure luck. If you take enough pictures, sooner or later you will press the shutter at just the right moment when the combination of circumstances will produce a much better picture than you had anticipated. It was a fortuitous photograph of this sort that forms the centerpiece of Clint Eastwood’s new movie Flags of Our Fathers, a dark meditation on the nature of heroism and our (perhaps foolish) need for heroes.

On February 19, 1945 the United States launched an invasion of Iwo Jima, technically the first of the Japanese Home Islands to be invaded. It is an unimpressive island: eight square miles of mostly flat volcanic rock, overlooked by the low dome of Mt. Suribachi in the southwest corner. However its two airstrips and its proximity to the main islands of Japan made it seem like a desirable target. The barren island was defended by 20,000 desperate Japanese troops determined to die rather than surrender, dug in with an elaborate network of pillboxes, blockhouses, underground bunkers, caves and tunnels.

Raising the Flag on Iwo JimagThe first target of the American forces was Mt. Suribachi, whose artillery emplacements could hit any point on the island and also attack the fleet surrounding it. For three days U.S. Marines fought their way up the mountain inch by inch. Finally on the morning of February 23, they reached the summit and hoisted a flag. Another flag was sent up to replace it and it was raised by a different group of Marines. Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, snapped a picture of the second flag raising and just by chance the result was a remarkable work of art which became for most Americans the single iconic image that symbolized the Second World War.

At this point most of Iwo Jima was still in Japanese hands. It took an additional four weeks to secure the island. 6,821 Americans died taking the island and at least 18,000 Japanese were killed.

Meanwhile the photograph had appeared in hundreds of U.S. newspapers and caused a sensation. By the time the authorities in Washington realized its importance, three of the six men in the picture had been killed in the fighting. The remaining three (two Marines and a Navy medical corpsman) were quickly flown back to the States and put to work selling war bonds.

This provides the structure of the movie: it shifts between the overpowering and the absurd; graphic scenes of the battle for Mt. Suribachi alternate with scenes of the war bond drive. For variety we occasionally jump forward in time to watch the son of one of the flag-raisers interview survivors to get material for the book this movie is based on.

The battle scenes are masterful. I’m sure that they do not convey the full horror of the fighting, but they probably come as close as is possible in an R-rated movie. The scenes back in the States seem frivolous by comparison, which presumably is part of the point.

The three surviving flag-raisers are very unhappy. They don’t like being singled out as heroes just because of the random accident of being photographed doing something that wasn’t actually very dangerous. And they are particularly unhappy when they are told to keep quiet about two inconvenient facts: that the flag in the picture was the second flag raised on the mountain top, and that one of the dead flag-raisers was misidentified in the press reports. They struggle with survivor’s guilt, and in one case with alcoholism.

I can understand how they would feel that way, but on the other hand I have trouble feeling much sympathy. They are told at the outset that the success of the bond drive is as vital to the war effort as was the capture of Iwo Jima. (This might well have been true. Military historians have argued ever since whether the strategic value of Iwo Jima was worth the cost of taking it. While the value of a particular airstrip may be debated, the costs and benefits of a bond drive should be fairly easy to calculate.)

That being the case, one would think they would be willing to endure some discomfort to make the drive succeed. All that is being asked of them is that they make some public appearances, tell the truth and just not mention a few details that would tend to disillusion the public. And in fact that is what they do; they just are very unhappy about it. Yet their suffering in the bond drive seems pretty trivial compared to what they and all the others suffered in the fighting.

In the end the movie tells us that we (the general public) are wrong to want heroes, and that our desire for heroes is harmful to people who are put forward as heroes. We should demand the plain unvarnished truth and accept that they are ordinary men. And if the plain unvarnished truth is disillusioning then we should just suck it up and continue to buy war bonds (because I don’t think the movie intends to say that the United States ought to have lost World War II).

I’m not entirely convinced. For one thing it is obvious that even if the three protagonists did not feel like heroes, they really were heroes, not for raising the flag but for fighting their way up Mt. Suribachi. The fact that thousands of others did the same doesn’t make it any less heroic. Also I’m pretty sure that the people who bought the war bonds fully understood that the picture merely symbolized the sacrifices made by thousands of brave men. The actual reality of the battlefield was incomprehensible; the picture reduced it to something that could be comprehended and appreciated. Is that really so wrong?

We (and in this case I mean contemporary baby boomers) have a rather puritanical attitude toward the truth. We tell ourselves that we want the plain, unvarnished, absolute truth and resent any attempt to pretty it up. The people in charge during the Second World War had a somewhat different attitude. They considered propaganda to be a legitimate weapon of war, like tanks or airplanes. “In war-time”, said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Now that’s a dangerous attitude. Clearly some very bad things can happen when leaders deceive the people. Yet it is worth considering that this particular group of leaders managed to save the world from something pretty horrible, even though they felt that they had to bend the truth to do it.


Wikipedia article: The Battle of Iwo Jima.