John Wayne, of course, did a film of the story of Iwo Jima. It does not seem to me a surprising thing that Wayne himself never served. How else could you make a film that finds war and the culture of war so really enchanting? This is not a film by someone who really, deep in his heart, hopes that there will never again be another war. This is a film by someone who believes no generation should miss out on the opportunity to make heroic "sacrifices". Just me, thank you, and Dick Cheney and George Bush and pretty well everyone else in the current administration.
I believe it is possible to make a film that simultaneously argues for the necessity of a military, for a time of war, at least in self-defense, but, at the same time, acknowledges the howling horrific waste of lives, and the inevitable exploitation of young male testosterone-fueled bravado.
There is a statue in Washington D.C. based on Joe Rosenthal image of the men raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi. In the statue, the men are 32 feet tall. The guns are 18 feet long. The flag pole is 60 feet.
I'm sure someone thought this was a compliment to the men. More probably, that someone thought it was a compliment to war: these men are surreal, figments of fantasy, and war itself is an epic adventure of unreal proportions. That's probably right-- that's how they sell young people-- who actually have to go fight the war-- on war. You will be bigger than life. You will be unreal.
The monument is an insult. The men were our size. They were us. What they accomplished was not epic or magical or unreal: they sacrificed their lives based on a perception of integrity in their leaders.
I'm pretty sure that the men who actually raised the flag on Iwo Jima would not be pleased with this monument. This monument is what we think they think we think of them. I'm not kidding. It's a monument to the people who put up the monument, the guilty adulation of the those who did not have to actually set foot themselves on a battle field.
I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds like "Flags of Our Fathers" is about this discrepancy too. It's not an argument against the possibility of the necessity of war. It's an argument against the idea that there is something noble and glorious about killing fellow human beings, for whatever reason.
But those who adore the culture of war must always retell the story so that military actions seem purposeful, honorable, and rational.
In fact, a good deal of war is the collision of failed strategies.
When Hollywood decided to make a picture to honor native American marine, Ira Hayes, who helped raise the flag on the blood-drenched slopes of Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, they chose.... Tony Curtis.
Well, heavens, you didn't think they would actually have a native person portray Ira Hayes, did you? After all, don't you want as many people as possible to see the movie? No one would finance it if you had a native person playing a famous native person...
This was a weird era in Hollywood. It was quite common to have famous American actors portray famous or infamous native peoples, or Japanese, or Greeks, or Arabs. I don't know if they figured most of us wouldn't be able to tell the difference... or wouldn't care. Shirley Maclaine played "Princess Aouda" in "Around the World in 80 Days". Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and James McArthur, among others, portrayed North American Native Peoples. Didn't Brando even play a Japanese guy once? Sidney Poitier played a black guy once.
Things haven't changed all that much: Renee Zellwegger as Brigit Jones? In heaven's name, is there not a single actress in all of Britain who could have played the part? Not one?
Iwo Jima is an island about 1200 kilometers from the coast of Japan. It is actually the top cone of a dormant volcano, and it's about 8 square miles. Tiny, really. Actually, that "8" doesn't sound right.
In 1945, the allies were able to send B-29 bombers all the way to Japan and back from the Marianas Islands, but no fighter planes could fly that far to accompany them. Iwo Jima could also provide a convenient landing zone for damaged planes, for repairs and refueling. The allied command felt they had to have Iwo Jima and it's air fields. The Japanese generals knew what the American generals knew. They concluded that the Americans would want to take Iwo Jima.
According to Wikipedia, this rationale for the capture of Iwo Jima, was constructed after the island was captured, once the staggering scale of casualties became apparent. And there was no military consensus on the necessity of capturing Iwo Jima. In fact, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were split on the question of what the next phase of attack would be, and whether the navy or the army should be in charge. Iwo Jima was not subsequently used, in any significant way, to provide fighter escorts for the B-29 bombers on their way to Japan, and it did not play a significant role in ensuring the safety of returning B-29s.
The Japanese built just about the most formidable defense imaginable for the island, consisting mostly of underground bunkers, caves, and tunnels. There were more than 22,000 soldiers hunkered down on the island, of which barely 1100 survived. Only 200 surrendered. They knew they were not there to live. The avowed goal of the defenders was to take 10 enemy for every one of their own. They fell far short of that: of 70,000 invading troops, 6,821 allied soldiers died and there were 26,000 casualties. I can't tell from reading that if the 6,821 were included in the 26,000 or not. Either way, the Japanese did not remotely reach their goal.
The Americans invaded with a force of about 70,000, (though I see 90,000, and 110,000 elsewhere and here), which is a pretty overwhelming number. When you add in the technical and material superiority, there could not have been much doubt about who was going to win. Indeed, it appears the Japanese did not anticipate holding out for much longer than a few months-- which, it turns out, was grossly optimistic.
I sometimes have a feeling that you could end all war if you could persuade all nations to agree that from now on, nobody under the age of 30 will be allowed to fight. What is it about 18-year-old males that makes them willing to die? I don't think it's just the belief in an afterlife-- it happens in all cultures and religions. If I had been a Japanese youth in 1944, would I have agreed to defend Iwo Jima? Why? Pardon my disloyalty, Mr. Emperor, but life is good. Why should I throw it away? Here's your uniform and gun.
They wouldn't have liked that. Traitor. Yellow. Coward. That's how they persuade you to throw your life away. But don't worry: the movie will be out in a few years and you're going to look glorious as you die.
There is an argument, from the American point of view, that it is right and good to serve in the army if it's mission is self-defense, if you are fighting an aggressor. The argument holds up pretty well for World War II, but not so neatly for Viet Nam or Iraq.
And it doesn't hold up as well when you consider that almost all wars are the result of the glorification of war, of the statues and the medals and the brass bands, and the culture that says you are truly a man if you are willing to kill and die for your country, and that threat must be met with threat, saber-rattling with saber-rattling, bravado and intimidation with bravado and intimidation