Media Stars and Stripes : IWO JIMA: Monuments, Memories and the American Hero, <i> By Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 300 pp.)</i>
It was the shot seen round the world, “The War’s Greatest Picture,” “The Picture That Thrilled the Nation,” “The Picture That Will Live Forever.” As a stamp, it sold 137 million copies, as a poster, it encouraged sales of war bonds by the tens of millions. It inspired three motion pictures, including one that revitalized John Wayne’s career, not to mention a Gargantuan bronze statue in our nation’s capital, weighing in at 100 tons, which boasted thumbs as big around as most people’s arms.
And it was all a lie.
Or was it?
It is one of the virtues of this riveting book, co-written by a university professor and a museum curator, that it embraces rather than evades the multiple ironies, paradoxes and contradictions that cluster around a single snapshot of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising a flag on a newly captured Japanese island near the ragged end of the World War II.
For, not surprisingly, the story of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima turns out to be a quintessentially American tale, underlining the virtues we prize and those we ignore, the competing lures of reality and illusion, and what happens when ghastly war and genuine heroism come face to face with a ravenous publicity machine and a country’s need for simple answers to painfully complex questions of national purpose and personal sacrifice. It is not a pretty picture.
As islands go, Iwo Jima was rather forgettable, a pork chop-shaped entity ringed with black volcanic sand and stinking of sulfur. But while the American high command said its capture was strategically essential if Japan was to be effectively bombed, the Japanese felt it was part of their sacred homeland and saw to it that it was frightfully well-defended. The result, beginning on Feb. 19, 1945, was a battle hellacious even by that war’s standards. On the American side, 6,621 died (including one-third of all Marines killed in the entire war), and 19,217 were wounded; on the Japanese side, 22,000 died. “No one who survived that beach,” said one who did, “can tell you how he did it.”
With casualties that high, the Marines were desperate for heroes, and for symbols. The word went out that when Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island, was captured, the American Flag should be immediately flown. On Feb. 23, an American patrol did the deed. Though no Americans had died in the final assault, it was still a genuinely heroic action and photographer Lou Lowery was there to record the first American flag of World War II to fly over sovereign Japanese territory.
There was, however, a problem with that flag. It was too small to be seen by all the troops still fighting on the island. So a second patrol went up to the by now pacified summit and, with all the tension and drama of a light bulb being changed, raised a larger Stars and Stripes. Another photographer, Joe Rosenthal, went along, kicking himself for having missed the real thing. He just managed one quick picture, a “grab shot,” taken so fast that Rosenthal never even got the names of the men in the photo.
For several reasons, it was Rosenthal’s photograph that electrified the nation. First of all, because he worked for AP and Lowery for Leatherneck, a monthly Marine magazine, Rosenthal’s picture got seen first. More than that, not only was it a splendid shot that made reality look like art, it touched a massive emotional chord. As Marling and Wetenhall note, “the very facelessness of the heroes sanctified a common cause,” and in the midst of Iwo’s carnage, “an image that smacked of victory, a picture that seemed to herald an end to the dying, went straight to the hearts of American readers.”
When the real Iwo Jima flag- wavers got off the island, they were shocked at the fuss, and at the mistake. “When I saw these pictures coming out of the States,” recalled Cpl. Charles Lindberg, “I looked at that and then--my God, something’s wrong here. That ain’t the one we raised.” But though Lowery’s photograph did get published, and the mistake was halfheartedly noted in small stories in back pages, nobody paid much attention. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph looked like what heroism was supposed to look like, and that was all the American public cared about.
The American public, to be fair, got lots of help. The Marine Corps, legendary for its self-promotion (Harry Truman said it had “a propaganda machine that is almost the equal to Stalin’s”), kept the image high on everyone’s mind. And the Treasury Department and President Franklin Roosevelt, eager to boost the sales of war bonds, brought the three surviving flag- wavers home to appear in an endless saturnalia of bond rallies and fund-raising dinners.
Those three men, who knew full well how little they had really done, all had difficulty adjusting to the status of being “heroes created by chance, confusion, and the symbolic power of imagery.” It was hardest of all, however, on Ira Hayes, a shy American Indian who hated attention of any kind. Feeling guilty at his undeservedly privileged position, he began to drink heavily, and finally had to be removed from the tour. In January, 1955, three months after that massive statue was unveiled in Washington, Hayes died on a Pima Indian reservation in Arizona. He was but 32 years old and had drowned in his own vomit, “a hero,” said a cop on the Phoenix wino detail, “to everyone but himself.”
Though co-authors Marling and Wetenhall have an occasional weakness for the over-amped sentence, they have on the whole told this cautionary tale with remarkable even-handedness and intelligence. The story they tell is not only fascinating, it points to a chilling moral about the continued necessity to be vigilant when governments prefer symbolism to truth. As Marling and Wetenhall point out, when George Bush chose the Iwo Jima Memorial to announce that he would back an anti-flag desecration Constitutional amendment, he was apparently unaware that “the Iwo Jima flag itself had been desecrated by one of the government’s own agents-- shot through with a bogus bullet hole, to sell more bonds.” So many things change, and so many things remain the same.