Taking the high ground in battle is often a precondition of victory; it allows an army to project force upon its enemies at greater range and with greater effect than from other, less advantageous positions. It is not surprising then that AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s stirring photograph of six Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima would become the most duplicated image from World War II. Not only did Rosenthal’s image mark the Marines’ achievement in that particular battle, it also signaled a larger, more important truth: that our men had the power to overcome ruthless enemies who were suicidal in their determination not to yield–that our men could win the war.
Yet in one of the accidents of history, the scene that Rosenthal captured was of men replacing the first flag that had been raised on Suribachi’s peak a half-hour earlier, and not of the original scene that had so buoyed the Marines in the heat of their battle. Rosenthal’s act was to create a monumental image of a minor moment–but a moment that nevertheless inspired a nation. It is this historical footnote that director Clint Eastwood chose to bring to the forefront in his film adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers’s bestselling book Flags of Our Fathers.
Eastwood centers his lens on the lives of the participants of the second flag-raising, flashing back and forth between the combat at Iwo Jima and the victory-bond tour that the three surviving flag-raisers participated in after the battle to raise money for the war effort. Throughout the movie, it is often hard to discern which scenes Eastwood intends to be more troubling: those of the savage hell of the battlefield of Iwo Jima, or those of the banal aftereffects of a celebrity seemingly earned more by dumb luck than by heroism.
And that’s not to say that the men Eastwood depicts aren’t heroes (although he repeatedly has them deny it far beyond humble self-effacement). Each of them display bravery, ranging from the Navy corpsman and flag-raiser who saves the life a wounded marine despite a hail of bullets (and is subsequently awarded the Navy Cross for his actions), to the men who showed their courage simply by their mere presence on the battlefield and their refusal to turn around and flee.
Yet in presenting the heroes-turned-celebrities of the second flag-raising of Iwo Jima, Eastwood repeats a disturbing mantra throughout his film: the “true” heroes of Iwo Jima were the men who died, and not those who survived the battle. This premise is underscored by Eastwood’s depiction the lives of the surviving flag-raisers after the war. One of the men would just as soon forget the battle (and even his own acts of bravery) and move on with both his nightmares and the rest of his life in quiet privacy. Another attempts to collect on the promises made to him during the height of his celebrity, only to discover frustration when these promises are left unfulfilled.
The last man, Marine PFC Ira Hayes, is torn apart by guilt, unable to reconcile that he survived and was made famous for an unessential act while his squad-mates on Iwo Jima died, and he puts himself to death through the slow poison of alcoholism. In his effort to portray the battle’s complex dilemmas and conflicted heroes, Eastwood ultimately reduces the story of Iwo Jima to that of confused tragedy.
The real heroes of Iwo Jima–both those who died on the battlefield and those who lived though it–deserve a better telling of their story. A hero, as defined by one scholar, is a person of “elevated moral stature and superior ability, who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonists.” A hero need not necessarily achieve practical victory in order for his deeds to have spiritual meaning, but only a culture that enshrines altruism and self-sacrifice would demand a hero’s outright immolation before it allowed him to recognize that he is truly worthy of the title.
And if “uncommon valor was a common virtue” of the Marines of Iwo Jima, isn’t it important to depict how so many men came to discover such virtue? Isn’t it important to depict not just the suffering and deaths of these heroes, but also the principles that defined their lives and brought them and their nation victory in the face of so many obstacles? Even the tragedy of Ira Hayes deserves a better telling, if only so those in similar straights can come to learn from his story and avoid his end.
It is in this light that “Flags of Our Fathers” is exactly the opposite from what it should be. What good is heroism if a hero cannot live to enjoy the fruits of his victory without guilt? Yes, some heroes endure hell, risk death, and even die in pursuit of their ends, but death is not their aim–life is. We ought to remind our living heroes of it, for today we posses a far greater understanding of the psychological pains that can afflict even the most stout-hearted of combat veterans.
We can (and must) tell our new generation of war heroes that for many of them, the act of returning to fulfilling and guilt-free lives may prove just as challenging as their trials on the battlefield, but that they have a moral right to every happiness. Clint Eastwood, a man who helped to depict cowboys as existentialist anti-heroes, has proven by “Flags of Our Fathers” that he is too enthralled by tragedy and irony to be of much help in such an endeavor.
It is shameful that to make a positive, life-affirming statement about our men and women in uniform becomes its own act of heroism, but the veterans of Iwo Jima–and the other veterans of our nation’s battles deserve as much.