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What's not in the Iwo Jima photo

Review by Donny Schraffenberger | November 3, 2006 | Page 13

Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, starring Ryan Phillippe and Adam Beach.

FLAGS OF Our Fathers is a film full of contradictions about the nature of war and the scars it leaves on the soldiers it grinds up.

Director Clint Eastwood doesn't glorify war; the movie certainly portrays the ugliness of combat. Yet, Eastwood isn't making an antiwar film. The "good war" isn't portrayed as sweet as apple pie, but more as a cynical manipulation by politicians and generals trying to keep the war in motion by hawking war bonds to a war-weary public.

In this monetary pursuit, the famous picture of Marines and Navy corpsmen raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi is used by racist politicians and generals to get money to keep the war churning on.

Adolph Hitler's Nazi Germany is fighting in a bloody destructive maelstrom in February 1945, when the Battle for Iwo Jima is taking place on the opposite side of the globe a few hundred miles from Japan. Flags of Our Fathers focuses on both the terrible battle for Iwo Jima and the war bond tour of the surviving soldiers of the flag raising.

Two Marines and a Navy corpsmen are picked off the island by the military brass, and sent across the U.S. to raise money at public rallies and fancy hotel banquets. In a haunting scene, a packed crowd enthusiastically watches a cartoonish reenactment of the raising of the flag in Chicago's Soldier Field by the flag raisers, while the three men have flashbacks to the fighting.

One of the men, Ira Hayes, a Native American, has to deal with racism from his Marine comrades to various politicians on their stops across the country. He is psychologically scarred by the horrors of combat, and feels that he has betrayed his fellow soldiers left fighting on the island by leaving the battlefield for the safety of the war bond tour. He never recovers from this devastation.

Although the film deals with the racism against Hayes, in a glaring omission, no Black Marines are shown in the movie, even though 900 participated in the battle.

The armada that is gathered to take the island is impressive, and the movie really gives you a feel of the enormity of the endeavor. Securing the island will allow U.S. heavy bombers a base to make forced landings from their bombing of the Japanese mainland.

Eastwood's only answer to why the soldiers fought the war against Japan is that they didn't want to let their buddies down, and that taking the island saved thousands of U.S. lives. In actuality, the same U.S. bomber crews that were saved by having the airstrips on Iwo Jima would later help destroy Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands.

U.S. heavy bombers firebombed Tokyo's civilians, leaving 100,000 dead. By July 1945, 66 Japanese cities had been destroyed, and only two targets were left intact to showcase the destructive power of the atomic bombs that would now be unleashed by U.S. airmen.

One hundred thousand were killed instantly in Hiroshima; all but 5,000 were civilians. Another 100,000 died later. Nagasaki would be wiped out three days later.

Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is more cynical about the war than Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, yet still offers the lesson that, in the end, winning the war was still worth it.

A hard question for contemporary filmmakers with some distance from the actual war is trying to understand what the U.S. was fighting for. To tackle the true nature of the war in Asia and the Pacific would mean questioning the right of imperialist nations such as Japan, the U.S., and Britain to carve up whole sections of the globe. I doubt Eastwood will do this, but he has announced that he will put out a film from the Japanese point of view.

Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, although flawed and lacking historical perspective, at least realizes that even the "good war" wasn't as pure and noble as our rulers would like us to believe.

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