Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima

The overstated, mythic creation of those who would want it so—men do not fight for country but for the man next to him.  While the latter is surely true, an all volunteer military in the U.S. suggests that people love this country and want to protect the freedoms it guarantees.

The erstwhile desire of some to create celebrity status of soldiers does not in any way diminish the reason for the fight—Tokyo’s surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.  American’s are constantly questioning themselves through written word and the silver screen as to whether or not their actions can be justified.  Correction and self-criticism are necessary in an open society.

However, films like Flags of Our Fathers create a historical imbalance. The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the only thing to take away from World War II and the battle for Iwo Jima is that good men die for questionable causes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In the quest for truth and justice, self-flagellation must be tempered by the rightness of the cause.  Some reviewers have allowed their anti-Iraq war stance to color the template they use to paint their portrait of Flags.  A possibly just concern about propaganda may need to be revisited many times over.

Again, however, Iwo Jima was a battle that cost nearly 7000 Americans their lives, not to mention the 20,000 Japanese solders who died.  Why did these men die?  Iwo Jima was a necessary island base for American bombers that could strike at the Japanese mainland itself.  While the war was drawing to a close, military leaders in the U.S. knew that to cause Japan’s unconditional surrender and a cessation of hostilities Iwo’s landing strips were paramount for victory.  On the one side, American soldiers gave their lives because the country had been attacked and the fight was taken to the enemy.

On the other side—a point of view not expressed in either Flags or Letters from Iwo Jima—the Japanese were compelled by their view of life that the Japanese culture was superior to all others necessitating military conquest; worship of the emperor as a god, the reason to fight.  Instead, the Japanese soldier is portrayed as generous and kind, caught in the web of politics they did not understand.  To ignore the socio-religious context of Japan at the time is to practice revisionist history on the big screen.  The Americans come off as trigger-happy cowboys, committing war-time atrocities (killing POWs).  It is patently unfair to American history to leave out why our country has gone to war in the past or why warfare is necessary now.

Humanization of Japanese soldiers against the awful stereotypical caricatures imposed on war posters of the day is a necessary message reflecting similar statements in Das Boot.  But to eliminate Japan as the aggressor, the rape of Nanking, the religious-militarism of kamikaze pilots, the Bataan Death March is to be willfully ignorant of history.  Careful of mythological warmongering, America needs be careful to revisit history to know the purpose of warfare: whether it be Pearl Harbor or 9-11.

Dr. Mark Eckel teaches the importance of history at Crossroads Bible College.

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