Flags of Our Liars
From Iwo Jima to Baghdad
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, October 19, 2006
Clint Eastwood is featured in today’s editions of Le Monde in a lavish page-1 profile, by means of previewing “Flags of Our fathers,” which premiered in Beverly Hills on October 9 (it opens in the rest of the solar system on Friday). Nothing written about Clint Eastwood or Iwo Jima can easily fail to be interesting. The article tells the story of the famously iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima, as rendered by Joe Rosenthal’s photograph, and Eastwood’s retelling of the story’s variously cynical, variously faked angles. But it also quotes Eastwood, who first saw the flag-raising picture in newspapers, when he was 15 in 1945, saying this: “Anyway, there remains this photograph by Joe Rosenthal. It’s unbelievable. An involuntary work of art. Never could a photographer have managed such a cliché intentionally. Rosenthal was the first to recognize it. The wind was blowing just right, light was optimal, the six soldiers’ position, the light at that point in the day. A miracle.” Well, no: a staged miracle, which was just what the Marines, who’ve never been above a good shot of PR, wanted.
Back in October 1991, when the country was finishing up with “Operation Desert Storm” (that other staged affair), Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall published Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories and the American Hero (Harvard University Press). The book documented the staging of the flag-raising. Another, smaller flag (54 by 28 inches) had been put up on Mount Suribachi five days into the battle. It was never used, except in Life Magazine, and Louis Lowery, the Marine combat photographer who’d shot it in the middle of difficult and dangerous conditions, was forgotten. Navy Secretary James Forrestal wanted a more flashy shot, a bigger flag, more usable by PR flackers back home. He got his wish. Several hours after the original flag-raising, five Marines and a corpsman trundled up Mount Suribachi with the bigger flag, a 96 by 56 inch affair, while Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, who’d been told of what was coming, set himself up, took eighteen pictures, sent them on to the AP, and the rest became the staged history the Marines wanted it to be: the picture is the single most reproduced picture of World War II, it won Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize, and netted the treasury $23 billion in Treasury notes as it was used to raise money for the war effort.
Three of the six flag-raisers were killed in the subsequent days of battle, which ended thirty-four days later after 26,000 Americans were killed or wounded, and 21,000 Japanese were killed. Two other flag-raisers became alcoholics, one of them—Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian—dying in 1955, and the other in 1979. Hays had always known the truth of that February hoax on Iwo Jima, but he’d been warned to keep it quiet: “I guess I was about to crack up, thinking of those guys who were better men than me not coming back at all, much less to the White House. On the reservation I got hundreds of letters, and I got sick of hearing about the flag-raising and sometimes I wished that guy had never made the picture.”
Rosenthal died just last month, age 94, still insisting the picture had not been staged. Like other corroborators of his act, he interpreted staging differently. Sure, he didn’t stage-manage. The Marines didn’t pause. But their act was all theatrics, an intentional recreation—the sort of thing Pulitzer Prizes are lost over, once found out, though Rosenthal (who’d been rejected by the military for poor eyesight) enjoyed his fame to the last, seemingly oblivious to the chasm between the fake heroism he helped craft, at the Marines’ behest, and the real, conflicted, manipulated heroism, incomprehensible to the rest of us, that the soldiers of Iwo Jima displayed—and that Eastwood, apparently, recreates in his movie.
Le Monde’s feature does touch on some of those contradictions. Le Monde will always revel in iconoclastic revelations where the United States is concerned. But the piece strikes a false note from the start with its headline: “Clint Eastwood: The Old Man and the War,” evoking exactly the wrong literary reference. There’s nothing Hemingwayeque, nothing romantic, nothing nationally heroic (as the flag-raising implies) about what happened on Iwo Jima, neither in its battlefields nor in the subplot surrounding the Rosenthal hoax. The heroism was all individual, or rather individualized, in spite of both the cynical American and Japanese strategies that led to what was, in the end, the pointless bloodbath of Iwo Jima. What was made of the flag-raising and the flag-raisers, to say nothing of what wasn’t made of the original flag-raisers and its photographer, was an all-around insult to the men who died at Iwo Jima, American and Japanese, and to the utter meaninglessness of battle, once the dead are counted and the regrettable consequences pile up much higher than whatever may have been gained.
How familiar it all sounds. Eastwood makes the point in the Le Monde piece: “Three generations of veterans have succeeded each other in this country, without so much as a lesson learned. All along these guys have been getting themselves killed because of politicians. It’s still the case today. You must understand that my country has never been so divided. I’m among those who think that it invading Iraq wasn’t a priority. Iraq also [like Korea] began as a police action to get rid of Saddam. But once there, then what? The nightmare begins, even if on the battlefield you’ve won the war. It’s a zero-sum game. Politicians are far more concerned with exercising and preserving their petty power than they are with the fate of the guy on the front lines. It was true in the past. It’s never been so true today.”
And now let’s pledge allegiance to the flags of our sons, why don’t we.