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The View From Mt. Suribachi

In his disappointing and anachronistic new film, Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood thinks he's teaching you something important.

By 10.25.06

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Some men (and women) whom the gods would destroy, they first raise high for all to see. These men (and women) have been so successful, have amassed such wealth, and have acquired so many playthings -- the grand houses on Lily Pond Lane, Chateaux en Provence, estates in Scotland surrounded by rushing streams rich with trout, or vast glass and steel condos looking out over Central Park, that they yearn for things that wealth cannot buy. These are men (and women) like George Soros, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg. Besotted with their wealth they forget that they are ordinary men (and women) with small gifts for entertaining or trading in markets. The gods first enchant them with dreams of changing the world and then cast them into the outer space of narcissistic illusion, where they are doomed to watch their own inner movies forever.

One fears that Clint Eastwood is heading in that direction. He has become so successful as an actor, director, and producer of movies that he may have forgotten that the gift he was given was to be used simply to entertain us, like a juggler, or a trapeze artist who makes us breathless with fear and then takes a smiling, confident bow.

Now he wants to teach us something important, to tell us what is right and what is wrong about the world. In his new movie, Flags of Our Fathers, based on the best seller by James Bradley published in 2000, he wants to teach us how we should feel about the tragedy of war and about heroism, together with a little bit about our soulless, lying, cynical government.

You will find none of these pretensions in James Bradley's book. He wrote it, he tells us, to figure out why his father, John Bradley, one of the anonymous men in the iconic photograph depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, refused to talk about his experiences in the war. The book is the product of James Bradley's search to understand his father, and in the process of discovery he tells us about the other five Marines in the famous photo and a bit about what happened after they became famous.

Eastwood's movie, on the other hand, is a bloated docudrama, which seems to take as long as the battle -- 36 days -- and seems to use about the same number of people in its cast and crew -- 70,000.

That is because, in trying to be faithful to James Bradley's book as well as his own views of war, the movie tries to be about a heck of a lot of things:

There's the war-is-hell theme.

There's the in-war-everyone-is-a-hero theme.

There's the son's-search-for-the-real-father theme.

There's the making-of-the-iconic-photo theme.

There's the confusion-about-the-identity-of-the-sixth-man theme.

There's the soulless-cynicism-and-hypocrisy-of-the-lying-government theme.

There's the racism-against-Native-Americans theme.

There's the how-the-war-and-government-destroy-little-people's-lives theme.

A pretty heavy load of themes for one movie to carry.

There are so many flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks and such a chorus of narrators and disembodied voices that part of the first twenty or so minutes seems like orientation week at Iwo U.

JUST AS SPIELBERG GAVE us a taste of death, dismemberment, and mutilation during the wordless invasion preface to Saving Private Ryan, Eastwood gives us a taste of death by confusion during the first part of Flags of Our Fathers.

The battle for the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima was one of the two last great amphibious battles of the Pacific in World War II. In order to pursue the grand strategy of the final stage of the war -- the invasion and occupation of the home islands of Japan -- it was necessary to capture Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Japanese knew that neither island could be denied the Americans, and thus the aim of any defense would be not to meet any invasion on the beaches, but to mount protracted campaigns that might sap the American's will to proceed with an invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Iwo was the first of these to be invaded, on February 19, 1945. For 72 days prior to the invasion Iwo Jima was bombarded by sea and air -- the longest bombardment afforded any island in the Pacific theater of operations. But the effectiveness of air and naval bombardment was largely offset by a combination of the deep, soft volcanic sand which covered the island and the Japanese preparation of a dense network of deeply placed tunnels, caves, and concrete gun emplacements designed so that no American Marine would be protected from withering cross-fire. The net result of this defensive preparation made it almost impossible for the invasion forces to see the enemy or to know where they were shooting from.

Iwo was small and shaped like an ice-cream cone -- 10,000 yards bottom to top, and 4,000 yards across the top part of the cone. At the bottom of the cone was what was left of an extinct volcano about 550 feet high -- Mt. Suribachi -- which contained hundreds of concrete pillboxes where the defenders lurked behind machine guns waiting for Marines to get within firing range and pick them off. Inside the volcano there were over a thousand Japanese soldiers free to move about in interconnecting tunnels and get to where they had the best opportunity to kill Americans.

The island contained 21,000 of some of the Japanese army's toughest and most determined troops, under the command of Lieut. General Tadamichi Kuribyashi. He had already issued an order to his officers: "Every man's position will be his tomb." And after 36 days of the most horrendous fighting, that was exactly the outcome for the Japanese -- 21,000 men dead. The aim of this suicidal tactic was to kill, maim, mutilate, and demoralize as many American Marines as possible.

One of the first major targets of the invasion was Mt. Suribachi, an elevated and formidable fortress able to rain fire down on any part of the little island. The Americans landed in three Marine divisions -- 70,000 men -- and fought on Suribachi for five days with many casualties before the stars and stripes was raised on its crest. That famous moment is the central focus of Eastwood's movie.

How fierce and cruel the fighting on Iwo Jima was for more than a month can be expressed abstractly in numbers. It was the highest casualty rate of any engagement up to that time in 168 years of Marine Corps history -- 6,821 killed in action, and 19,217 maimed, mutilated, wounded. Admiral Nimitz issued a statement saying that "On Iwo island uncommon valor was a common virtue." There were 353 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded during the Second World War; 84 of these were awarded to Marines fighting in the South Pacific, and of these 27 were awarded to the men fighting on Iwo Jima during that single month -- a record unsurpassed by any battle in U.S. history.

Such unique wartime struggles always result in ironies, myths, betrayals, guilt, and, more than anything, the need for heroes. The raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi on D+4 is an event surrounded by powerful myths and Bradley's book is an attempt to get to the truth of the great iconic photograph that recorded that event.

THE TRUE STORY, AS PIECED TOGETHER by James Bradley over a period of several years from hundreds of interviews and documents, goes something like this. By the fifth day of savage fighting, Mt. Suribachi seemed uncharacteristically quiet. It was then that Col. Chandler Johnson sent a platoon of 40 men to reconnoiter the peak of the mountain. "Just before the forty man patrol began its climb....Johnson called Lieutenant Schrier [leader of the platoon] aside....'If you get to the top,' the colonel told Schrier, 'put [this] up.'

"What Johnson handed the lieutenant was an American flag...relatively small...measuring fifty-four by twenty-eight inches."

As they snaked their way up the hill neither the men nor their officers, nor the growing audience of Marines all over the island watching them as they climbed higher and higher, believed they would make it to the top. They were afraid that they were walking into a trap and that as they drew closer to the summit they would be attacked.

John Bradley, known to the other members of the company as "Doc" because he was their medical corpsman, was in the group making the climb, as was a photographer from Leatherneck Magazine, Louis Lowry. The patrol clawed its way to the top at about 10 a.m. as Sgt. Lowry photographed their ascent.

Searching for a staff to attach the flag to, the men found a length of pipe that was usable.

Then, knowing that this was an important moment that would be photographed, some of the patrol's brass took over.

Platoon Sergeant Thomas, Sergeant Hansen, and Corporal Lindberg converged on the pole. They took the folded flag out and tied it in place as Doc Bradley helped. Lou Lowry documented the proceedings with a steady succession of camera shots. He moved in close, suggested poses, cajoled the boys into self-conscious grins with his patter....As Lowry clicked [his final] exposure, an amazing cacophony arose from the island below and from the ships offshore. Thousands of Marine and Navy personnel had been watching the patrol as they climbed to the volcano's rim. When the small swatch of color fluttered, Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into Times Square on New Year's Eve. Infantrymen cheered, whistled, and waved their helmets. Ships offshore opened up their deep, honking whistles. Here was the symbol of an impossible dream fulfilled. Here was the manifestation of Suribachi's conquest. Here was the first invader's flag ever planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan.


Thus it was Thomas, Hansen, Lindberg, and Bradley who were the first flag raisers, and who deserved some measure of acknowledgement for their valor in making the climb to the top when everyone thought that they would never make it, and for making themselves targets in order to plant the stars and stripes and raise the spirits of the other 70,000 Marines still caught in savage battle.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had seen the flag-raising from the shore line and had decided that he wanted the flag as a souvenir. When the pugnacious Col. Chandler Johnson heard about Forrestal's wish his response was, "The hell with that." The flag belonged to the battalion as far as the Colonel was concerned and he decided to secure it as soon as possible. He ordered another, larger, flag to be found with which to replace the original and sent a small detail of men up to the top to make the change.

It was long after the cheers had died out following the original flag-raising and no one was paying attention to the five men as they reached the peak and began preparing the replacement flag for the second raising. They were four men from the 2nd Platoon of Easy Company: Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and their squad leader Mike Strank, in addition to Rene Gagnon, a messenger who carried the new, larger, flag.

As Rene handed Mike [Sgt. Strank] the replacement flag, the sergeant decided an explanation was in order.

"Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high...so every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy island can see it."

Mike directed Ira and Franklin to look for a length of pipe. He and Harlon started clearing a spot for planting the pole, and Harlon began stacking the stones.


In the meantime Lou Lowry was heading down Suribachi after the first flag-raising and met two Marine photographers and a civilian photo-journalist -- Marine Bob Campbell, a still photographer; Sgt. Bill Genaust, a cinematographer; and Joe Rosenthal, working for AP. He told them about the flag-raising and urged them to go up for the impressive views. When they reached the top and saw that the small original flag was about to be replaced by a taller, larger one they started taking pictures -- Genaust movies, and Campbell and Rosenthal still pictures. So the entire scene was well witnessed and recorded.

As the five men of the flag replacement detail were struggling with the heavy and cumbersome pipe in the high wind that was whipping across the summit of Suribachi, Sgt. Mike Strank called out to Doc Bradley to give them a hand.

Mike saw Doc Bradley walking past with a load of bandages in his arms and asked him to come to help. Doc dropped the bandages and moved to the pole, directly between Mike and Harlon.

Rosenthal spotted the movement and grabbed his camera.

Genaust, about three feet from Rosenthal, asked: "I'm not in your way am I, Joe?"

"Oh, no," Rosenthal answered. As he later remembered, "I turned from him and out of the corner of my eye I said, 'Hey, Bill, there it goes!'"...

Rosenthal remembers: "By being polite to each other we both damn near missed the scene. I swung my camera around and held it until I could guess that this was the peak of action, and shot." At that moment all nine muses must have swept down from Olympus and touched Joe Rosenthal's finger to create the iconic photograph of World War II and arguably of the century up to that time -- a picture of such classic beauty and power that it became world famous literally overnight.

And then it was over. The flag was up....Campbell had gotten the shot he was after...Genaust had gotten the footage he wanted...Only Joe Rosenthal was unsure. The AP man didn't even have a chance to glimpse the image in his viewfinder....Within a few more seconds the flagpole was freestanding, the cloth snapping and cracking in the wind....[But] no one paid any attention. It was just a replacement flag. The important flag -- the first one raised that day -- was brought down the mountain and presented to Colonel Johnson, who stored it in the battalion safe. It bore too much historic value for the battalion to be left unguarded atop Suribachi. The replacement flag flew for three weeks, eventually chewed up by strong winds.


The AP photo editor on Guam, John Bodkin, was the first to discover Rosenthal's beautiful shot. "He looked at it...shook his head in wonder, and whistled. 'Here's one for all time!'" Without wasting any time he radio-photoed the image to AP headquarters in New York. Within hours it was in newsrooms all over America, and on Sunday, February 25, it appeared in the homes of 25 million readers. The image was so arresting that within weeks it was world famous as the expression of American determination and ultimate triumph.

The news of Iwo Jima since the invasion on February 19 had been so worrisome and troubling, so full of description of savage fighting, that it was not difficult for worried Americans at home to misunderstand this image of young men raising a flag on high ground. It was, to the people back home, a symbol of victorious battle. We had fought on Iwo against insurmountable odds and had prevailed. The battle was over and soon the war would be over. Those faceless men in the image were the warriors who had fought and triumphed against the cruel Japanese. They became heroes instantly in their anonymity. It didn't matter who they were.

THESE EVENTS, WHICH PLAY a central part in Bradley's book, are treated with minimal interest in Eastwood's film. What grabs Eastwood's attention is the opportunity to demonstrate to his public the hellish aspects of war. Nothing new there. The trouble with the non-controversial aspects of the movie is that the men who are its focus are not interesting people in this context. There is little or no inner human conflict that can be shown on the screen. So what you are left with is a story in which the central figures are passive victims of external forces -- the battle of Iwo Jima and a war bond drive. Pretty thin stuff when you get down to it -- in a movie that is meant to be BIG -- unless you hoke it up. Which is what Eastwood is forced to do in the second half of the movie, where the central focus becomes Ira Hayes' psychopathology during the war bond drive. Interest here is created by political stereotypes and much overacting.

But the most troublesome parts of Eastwood's film are those that distort the spirit of 1945 through a postmodern sensibility. This is done, in part, by exaggerating the meaning and importance of the 7th War Bond Drive that took place in the Spring of 1945. The movie transforms the two months during which the three surviving young flag-raisers -- John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe); Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a young Pima Indian; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) -- went on tour to sell war bonds, into a vulgar, hypocritical sideshow. The representatives of the government are depicted as soulless cynics, unresponsive to the needs and feelings of the young Marines who hated the fact that they were presented as heroes. They knew that in raising the second flag they had done nothing worthy of merit, while the others, living and dead, deserved the recognition.

The bond drive is acknowledged as necessary but somehow made to seem ignoble and grubby, when, in fact, it served an extremely important economic purpose. The bond drives were undertaken during the second and first World Wars not only for the purpose of supporting the material needs of the war -- taxing the public could have achieved that. But it was even more important to prevent an inflation, during and after the war, of catastrophic proportions -- the kind that Germany suffered after the first World War. What was prevented was huge amounts of cash generated from an economy of overfull employment chasing very few available goods. The sale of the bonds took $26 billion out of the circulating economy and stored it safely in the cupboards and safe deposit boxes of millions of civilians until a later time when it could be redeemed with interest to purchase goods that were more available.

There was no sense of deception or exploitation at the time. The drives had their share of corny patriotism and tedium for those celebrities who participated in them, but there was no cynicism. Most people felt good about helping the war effort by lending money to Uncle Sam at a rate of 2.9% a year. And only a sophisticated few knew that they were saving themselves from inflation and an economic disaster in the bargain.

The movie exaggerates, too, the confusion about the identity of the low man on the right in the iconic picture. The matter was investigated and within a year the right Marine was acknowledged publicly as the correct figure in the great photo.

In Eastwood's movie this understandable confusion is transformed into a high level government conspiracy. The government is seen to be suppressing the truth in order to keep the public from finding out that a mistake was made. The powerful, soulless government lies to the public and covers up its lies, just as it does today.

BUT PERHAPS THE MOST ANACHRONISTIC aspect of the film is Eastwood's view of heroes and heroism. If he could, Eastwood would eliminate the horrors of Iwo Jima, but if we cannot eliminate war and its horrors we should eliminate heroes and heroism. And we should get rid of the celebration of heroes. Over and over this theme is repeated -- "everyone who went to Iwo was a hero"; or "the only heroes are the ones still there."

The modern, politically correct view is not only that "war is hell," but that "war is unnecessary." And if there was no hero worship war would not be encouraged. Furthermore, heroism is a form of elitism and robs people of a sense equality; no one should be morally ranked.

In 1945 there was no shame involved in getting medals and being a hero. There was also no shame in not being a hero. All that is required of any soldier is that he do his duty. All that is required of any man is that he make some contribution to the protection of his home and children.

All wars and especially all savage battles like Iwo evoke much survivor guilt and feelings that one has betrayed those who died in battle. In addition to the legitimate grief in the loss of a loved comrade, there is a sentimental reaction in those survivors who are singled out for their valor -- "I do not deserve this honor, I let my buddy down. I would gladly give up this honor in return for the life of my friend."

The fact is that there are wars, there have always been wars, there will always be wars -- small and large, between neighbors, brothers, clans, tribes, towns, cities, states, nations, religions, classes, races, in short wherever there are differences to be found between people. Those differences will, sooner or later, lead to fighting. Xenophobia and aggression seem to be hard-wired into man's nature.

The utopian notion that man can be taught to live peacefully with his fellow man inexorably drives those who are drunk with great wealth and power to believe that they can eliminate differences between men by giving everyone the same equal share.

What is hard to accept among those who value political correctness is that there are differences of degree in every living thing. In stature, intelligence, skills, in everything, even courage. They all were heroes on Iwo, those men who fought there, but some were more heroic than others. The case of the surviving flag-raisers suggests that this is so.

Neither Rene Gagnon nor Doc Bradley wanted to kill people when they joined the service. Rene joined because he wanted to be a hero, or be thought a hero by the girls, and he thought that the Marine uniform was the most heroic looking -- a girl getter. Doc Bradley specifically joined the Navy because he did not want to be on the front line as his father was in the First World War. He hoped to become a pharmacist's mate aboard ship, which was consonant with his peaceable nature and his wish to help people.

Bradley was surprised when he was chosen to be trained as a medical corpsman serving with the Marines. Throughout his service Bradley was admired, liked, and respected by all the men around him. He may have hated being in the battle of Iwo Jima, but his fear and hatred were set aside in the service of doing his job no matter what.

In the midst of the carnage, Doc Bradley ran through the chaos, doing what he could....He watched a Marine blunder into a cross fire of machine-gun bursts and slump to the ground. Doc did not hesitate...[he] sprinted through thirty yards of saturating cross fire -- mortars and machine guns -- to the wounded boy's side. As bullets whined and pinged around him, Doc found the Marine losing blood at a life-threatening rate. Moving him was out of the question until the flow was stanched. The Japanese gunfire danced all around him, but Doc focused his mind on his training. He tied a plasma bottle to the kid's rifle and jammed it bayonet-first into the ground. He moved his own body between the boy and the sheets of gunfire. Then, his upper body still erect and fully exposed, he administered first aid.

His buddies watching him from their shell holes were certain that he would be cut down at any moment. But Doc Bradley stayed where he was until he thought it was safe to move the boy. Then he raised a hand, signaling his comrades not to help, but to stay low. And then my father stood up into the merciless firestorm and pulled the wounded Marine back across thirty yards to safety by himself. His attention did not flicker until the Marine was safely evacuated.

This action -- so heroic that two sergeants and Captain Severance came forward to report it -- earned him his Navy Cross, an honor he never mentioned to our family. It was one of the bravest things my father ever did, and it happened on one of the most valorous days in the history of a Corps known for valor.


Not much is made of John Bradley's Navy Cross, or the heroic actions that earned it, in Clint Eastwood's movie. In fact, much more is made of Ira Hayes' self-destructive behavior and nervous breakdown because it suits modern sensibilities to celebrate Ira's victimhood than to celebrate John Bradley's heroism.

Unlike John Bradley, Rene Gagnon wanted to be a hero, to win the love of his girl by impressing her with his bravery -- a common adolescent fantasy. He wanted to get something out of being a hero. And here is how he behaved under fire:

Rene Gagnon fired his rifle for the first time on March 12.

He and a buddy had wandered into a cave, assuming it was empty -- a mistake that had cost many Marines their lives. The two boys found themselves facing a lone Japanese soldier with his rifle aimed at them. As he told his son, Rene Jr., many years later, the New Hampshire mill kid had a blinding thought in the split second that followed: "We all have mothers. We're all human. Why does this have to be?"

Rene had his own rifle but he hesitated. He hoped, against all reason, that the Japanese would lay down his weapon. Instead, the enemy soldier fired. Rene's buddy dropped dead. In the next second it would be Rene's turn. He squeezed the trigger, and the Japanese crumbled. Rene stood in the cave, trembling. This was what the battle had come down to. To his son, he later recalled thinking: "Why did I have to do this? Looking down a barrel into someone's eyeballs and having to kill him. There's no glory in it."


There seems to be no recognition that he had put his own anxieties and scruples above the life of his buddy.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether there are degrees of valor and whether it is nobler to celebrate these degrees or to ignore them as Eastwood believes.

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About the Author

Yale Kramer is a psychiatrist and essayist for Horsefeathers, the blog that fights folly, ignorance, and cant.