HISTORICAL FICTION : Iwo Jima: Commemorating the Past While Ignoring its True Meaning

Bruce J. Schulman, associate professor of history at Boston University, is the author of "Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism" (Bedford/St. Martin's)

Last week, veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima returned to the tiny volcanic island where, 50 years ago, they fought one of the fiercest campaigns in military history. Losing nearly half their number in an exhausting, monthlong struggle, three divisions of Marines captured the island from a determined detachment of Japanese defenders. To commemorate the battle, 1,000 Marines joined 100 Japanese survivors of the garrison that inflicted such horrible casualties and suffered such dreadful losses.

Both sides depicted the event as a reconciliation. "The Japanese veterans would have never agreed to go if the U.S. side was planning to stage a V-J (Victory over Japan) Day celebration," one Japanese soldier insisted. And the U.S. Armed Forces assured them that would not be the case. "This is not a victory celebration," affirmed Marine Lt. Col. Stan Gould. "We are commemorating 50 years of peace since the battle where so many Japanese and American soldiers lost their lives."

The joint celebration at Iwo Jima differs significantly from the festivities marking last year's 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Then, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted that German veterans participate: German soldiers had fought bravely in the war; the invasion had liberated Germany from Nazism as well as France, enabling it to join the fraternity of democratic nations as a staunch ally in the West's Cold War struggle against communist totalitarianism. The commemoration of Normandy, German authorities contended, anticipating the Japanese and Americans at Iwo Jima, should celebrate not the victory over Nazism, but its long-term consequences--a half-century of peace between Germany and its former enemies.

In Normandy, however, the singular horror of the Holocaust undercut Kohl's specious and disturbing arguments. The Germans did not and could not participate; their inclusion would have meant forgetting the essential meaning of the invasion, the reasons why Allied soldiers fought and died on those beaches.

The issue is less stark at Iwo Jima--but the assault on history is no less disturbing. Of course, Japanese and Americans should meet as friends in 1995; there is no reason to reignite the fury and hatreds of war. But a commemoration of the ferocious battle of Iwo Jima must not paper over that genuine hostility or forget the real stakes of the Pacific war.

Sadly, last week's celebration distorts history in many ways. First, it submerges Japanese war guilt, further delaying Japan's acknowledgment of and atonement for conquests and atrocities it performed in the service of its imperial ambitions.

Second, the hand-clasping and back-slapping reunion of former enemies--the familiar rituals in which servicemen find common ground in the shared hardships of battle--obscures the great stakes these soldiers bled and died for. Such celebrations reduce war to matters of tactics and strategy; they detach from larger contexts the overwhelming and unforgettable experiences of battle--mud, fear, blood, death. It equalizes the suffering of both sides, unites them in the common experiences of battle and survival, and buries the fact that the fate of Asia and the future lives of millions turned on the outcome of the war in the Pacific.

Third, the sanitized pabulum of reconciliation masks the hatred this nation took into battle with the Japanese and prevents us from confronting its implications. Throughout the war, Americans fought the Japanese with a savagery never directed toward European enemies.

Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle noted this brutal, dismissive attitude when he traveled from the Western Front to the Pacific almost 50 years ago. "In Europe," Pyle reported, "we felt our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I've already gathered the feeling that the Japanese are looked upon as something inhuman and squirmy--like some people feel about cockroaches or mice."

This extreme, perverted enmity extended even to the home front. The U.S. government incarcerated more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry at 10 internment camps spread across seven Western states. The War Department forcibly relocated both aliens (immigrants from Japan were ineligible for citizenship no matter how long they resided in this country or how fervently they wished to naturalize) and their native-born children--full U.S. citizens. Authorities made no effort to distinguish loyal Americans from potential traitors; racial characteristics alone made them all dangerous and undesirable.

The reconciliation at Iwo Jima prevents both Americans and Japanese from confronting the real history of their wartime struggle. This flight from history comes as little surprise. Anniversaries often serve as occasions to revise and forget rather than reflect and remember.

For Americans, the use of commemorations to advance contemporary agendas remains a venerable tradition--as old as the republic and as fresh as the ink on last week's newspapers. In 1775, for example, villagers in Lexington and Concord took pains to document the purely defensive character of their famous battle against the Redcoats. They compiled volumes of testimony and eyewitness accounts proving the embattled colonists had only responded to British aggression. But 50 years later, Lexington and Concord practically went to war with each other, disputing who had fired the first shot, who had fought most tenaciously.

Just last month, the Smithsonian Institution canceled its 50th anniversary exhibit on the Hiroshima A-bomb, the result of a controversy that had more to do with winning votes and skewering the "cultural elite" in 1996 than with remembering the past.

Understanding history--and valuing it--requires, above all, a genuine, critical engagement with the past. We are, and ever must be, creatures of our own time, tempted to bend memory to current purposes, to expurgate histories that make us uncomfortable, to dismiss newly discovered facts that dispute our sunny recollections of bygone days.

But at Iwo Jima, as at Normandy, we must resist that temptation. We must try to reclaim the lost country of the past, in all its discomfiting, unsettling starkness--even if historical reality does not affirm the sentiments and advance the policies of today.

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