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Monday, May 29, 2000

Old prejudices burn bright in war memoir


NEW YORK -- A new book on Iwo Jima demystifies the flag, said Richard Bernstein, reviewing it for The New York Times.

What James Bradley calls "The Photograph" in "Flags of Our Fathers" (Bantam, 2000) is only too famous: a picture of a small band of soldiers in battle fatigues struggling to raise the U.S. flag on what appears to be a devastated, windswept hilltop. Almost accidentally taken by Joe Rosenthal, the photo instantly captured the American imagination as the very image of valor and patriotism.

The idea for what finally became the 100-ton bronze statue, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, was proposed less than 20 days after the flag-raising, before the battle was over. The congressman who introduced a bill for the idea said, "I do not believe any product of the mind of the artist could equal this photo in action."

Three of the six "flagraisers" were killed in subsequent battles. The three survivors were summoned home as heroes to spearhead a war-bond campaign. The campaign was a glorious success. It raised $26.3 billion -- twice the original target. The sum was equal to one-half of the U.S. budget for the year.

Yet, already during the fervent national tour, a schism began to appear between the heroes and the adulators, Bradley reports. For the heroes, there was nothing heroic about the flag-raising. The first flag raised was small. When the replacement flag was raised, they happened to be around, so they lent a hand. It was as simple as that.

And the flag-raising and the adulation affected the three men differently. For Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona, it became in the end a sort of stigma -- something that would be brought up when he least needed it. For Rene Gagnon, a mill worker from Manchester, it became a phantom on which he could never build an imagined career.

And for John Bradley, a future owner of a funeral home in a small town in Wisconsin, it became something to be avoided whenever possible. Most insistent on "no heroism" during the bond tour, he saw the discrepancy between image and reality most clearly.

Indeed, it was his father's lifelong reticence on the subject of Iwo Jima and flag-raising, and the posthumous discovery that his father, a medical corpsman, had even been decorated with the Navy Cross, that compelled James Bradley to look into the lives of the six men, piece together the battles they fought, and examine what happened afterward. The result is a son's heartfelt tribute to his beloved father.

Knowing it is a filial tribute, I still find "Flags of Our Fathers" bumpy in places -- yes, where Bradley describes the enemy, the Japanese. In demystifying the flag-raisers, I wish he had demystified the defenders. Instead, he resorts to unthinking wartime contrasting.

So, the U.S. Marines are "the cream of American democracy," while the Japanese soldiers are "the elite minions of a thoroughly militarized society." In one passage he exalts the marine corps for breaking the "individualists" (they are American!) into "powerlessness" to turn them into cogs of a "human war machine"; in another, he condemns the Japanese military for doing just about the same thing.

The slogan "Death Before Dishonor" is a fine expression for the American fighting man; for the Japanese, it is a "myth-obsessed" absurdity or else a manifestation of a "corrupt" samurai code. Likewise, Bradley at one point speaks of Japanese soldiers as "suicidal"; in the next breath he mentions "brave marines trained to advance despite any conditions and all losses."

Bradley apparently does this in part out of a filial remorse. He attended college in Tokyo (days of "study or sushi") and once thought he had figured the "real" reason the United States fought Japan: "FDR's severing of their oil lines forced Japan -- an industrial beached whale -- to attack Pearl Harbor in self-defense." And once, at a Thanksgiving dinner, he expounded this view in his attempt to "enlighten" his father.

Years later, perhaps after he discovered the "secret" of his father's reluctance to talk, he decided this "self-defense" argument was "bogus." What was John Bradley's secret? During the heat of battle, his best friend was captured by the Japanese; when his body was found, it was mangled from torture and had its penis stuck in its mouth.

Yet, with due respect to James Bradley's filial love and remorse, I wonder if this was reason enough for him to talk, half a century later, like a marine who's just survived a hellish battle.

In writing about Rear Adm. Rinosuke Ichimaru, one of the two commanders of Iwo Jima, Sukehiro Hirakawa, a former professor of English at the University of Tokyo, has suggested that history may be measured by the units of day, month, year and century.

We need not use the unit of century to see that the Battle of Iwo Jima was a battle in which an overwhelming force set out to annihilate a trapped enemy, and did. The facts and figures that Bradley has marshaled (at times with boyish glee) to write "Flags of Our Fathers" show this: "70,000 assault-troop marines" lined up against a garrison whose strength was originally put at 14,000 men; 72 consecutive days" of bombing and bombardment before the first landing, of what is "only about a third of the mass of Manhattan Island"; and so forth.

As Gen. Graves Erskine said at the dedication of a cemetery on Iwo Jima on March 14 while the battle was still going on, "Victory [for the U.S] was never in doubt." In these circumstances, to speak of enemy savagery makes little sense.

James Bradley is "straightforwardly patriotic," to quote reviewer Richard Bernstein. But "Flags of Our Fathers," which has become a best seller, has left me wondering if straightforward patriotism was what his father wanted.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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