What 'Flags of Our Fathers' Forgets

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I went to see
Flags of our Fathers this weekend and I was expecting a pro-war
movie, a Saving Private Ryan in the Pacific type of deal.
I'm happy to report that this was not the case. Self-sacrifice was
not glamorized; there was no glorious victory. The film was supposedly
about the battle of Iwo Jima but in fact, little attention was paid
to the battle or its outcome except as the setting for the famous
flag-raising picture. The movie spent most of its time recounting
the manipulation of the flag-raising soldiers and their families
by the government in order to sell bonds. The tone of Flags
is decidedly anti-war and anti-state, which is not surprising since
it was directed by Clint Eastwood, a self-described libertarian.

The real
tragedy of Iwo Jima, however, is that the battle was fought at all.
Following their victory in the Marianas in June 1944, US forces
could have taken Iwo Jima without a fight. Its strategic value was
well known and the tiny Japanese force (mostly pilots) assumed that
they would be assaulted and captured. To the surprise of the Japanese,
the Americans turned southeast towards the Philippines, fulfilling
Douglass MacArthur's promise to return there. In his 1957 book Samurai,
Japanese pilot Saburo Sakai wrote of his experiences at Iwo:

It was obvious
to us all that we could offer only token resistance, that within
an hour or two after a landing the Americans would control Iwo.
…Who among us would have dared to prophesy that the Americans
would throw away their priceless opportunity to take the island
with minimum casualties on their side?

Iwo was
spared in part because of the ambitions of MacArthur. While others
advocated continuing the direct drive on Japan, MacArthur pushed
for a recapture of the Philippines and got his way. Japan would
have to wait. No doubt the thought of winning the war without first
liberating the Philippines kept MacArthur up at night. In the meantime,
the Japanese reinforced Iwo with 20,000 troops and dug in. According
to Sakai, Japanese military leaders believed the war would have
ended sooner if the US had not waited so long to attack Iwo Jima:

The Philippines
invasion was a vast and costly operation, highly successful for
the Americans, but an insignificant campaign which did little
to hasten the defeat which was already in sight.

With Iwo turned
into a fortress, the Marines called for a ten-day bombing of the
island to soften it up. Instead the Navy gave them three, one of
which was severely hampered by weather. Despite seeing how strong
the remaining defenses were, the Marines were ordered ashore with
predictable results.

Having
ignored the island when it was unoccupied, and choosing neither
to "island-hop" past it or to effectively reduce its defenses,
the battle on Iwo was horrific. Over 26,000 Americans were killed
and wounded as they assaulted an island whose defenses were as intact
as in any battle of the Pacific war.

Seeking
a rationale for the bloodshed on Iwo Jima, historians have pointed
to the tremendous savings of life to American aircrews that used
Iwo as an emergency landing strip during bombing runs over Japan.
(In the final scene of Flags, Eastwood also bows to this
by showing a smoking B-29 landing on Iwo.) However, the suggestion
that the cost of Iwo was repaid by sparing the lives of thousands
of bomber crews is a dubious one.

For starters,
the claim is made in hindsight. Yes, the island and its runway had
strategic value – but not 26,000 lives worth of value. It is implausible
to suggest that the Joint Chiefs were willing to expend that much
on an emergency airstrip. Furthermore, had the fighting in the Pacific
continued and included an invasion of Japan, wrecking three Marine
divisions on Iwo would have been exceedingly foolish.

The reasoning
falters even more when we realize that the number of airmen "saved"
by Iwo has been exaggerated. A figure of 20,000 is arrived at by
taking the number of landings on Iwo and multiplying it by the number
of people in each plane. However, some of the planes that choose
to land on Iwo would have made it back to the Marianas and some
that ditched in the ocean would have been rescued. To assume that
every plane that landed on Iwo would have been lost if we didn't
take the island is inaccurate and serves mainly to conceal the blunders
of the operation.

The same
can be said for arguments that Iwo provided a land base for fighter
escorts into Japan. Considering the quality of Japanese pilots and
aircraft in 1945, and with B-29s increasingly raiding at night,
this argument is also a thin justification for the losses on Iwo.

In the
end, the story of Iwo Jima is of a battle fought for very little
reason at very great cost.

November
9, 2006

Scott
Kauzlarich [send
him mail
] is a professor of social science at Ellsworth Community
College in Iowa Falls, Iowa.

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