When will we ever learn?
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
As I write, the dying continues in Iraq at an accelerated pace. President George W. Bush’s advisors carefully chose their word “surge” as an alternative to the widely employed and ultimately futile “escalation” of the War in Vietnam in the mid and late 1960s. But the term “surge” now drips with unintended irony as the security for civilian and soldier alike has retreated and the dying has increased. Nearly 3,600 Americans have died since the American invasion in March of 2003, at a rate through the first four months of 2007 fifty-three percent higher than 2006. The death toll in the first two months of the war’s fifth year has registered at a pace that would make year five the bloodiest yet.
In the run up to the war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney told us we would be greeted as liberators, that our mission, in addition to defusing non-existent weapons of mass destruction, was to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. What we have brought, more certainly, is death in staggering numbers. In response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched a “war on terror.” Some three thousand innocent Americans died on 9/11. The Old Testament formula of “an eye for an eye” was invoked precisely to prevent what has happened in Iraq. Estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq vary greatly. Our president admits to “perhaps thirty thousand” (ten eyes for an eye). Outside his administration, conservative figures suggest at least twice that number, and some calculations place the number at well over a half million.
Historians debate the necessity of individual wars, and in such analysis, for instance, the American Civil War finds more justification than the Spanish American War. World War I was inexcusable folly while the unavoidable World War II is widely judged “the good war.” Wars are won and lost in the aggregate and not always as a direct result of the fighting within them. The individual battle and all the blood shed within it are seldom pivotal, Gettysburg perhaps excepted along most certainly with Stalingrad and the Normandy invasion on D-Day. But however wars and their battles are assessed, they have in common the horror and, as Joseph Heller railed against in Catch 22, the randomness of the dying. The individual death seldom accomplishes much of anything save the waste of something inexpressibly precious. In short, though wars are justified in most every way imaginable, what they bring about most reliably is death—death even among those in uniform we are entirely right to term innocent.
And that’s just the point Clint Eastwood has endeavored to make in his two most recent films released within months of each other late last year. In fact, though they were written by different screenwriters and performed in different languages, because Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima employ overlapping footage of the same scenes and a purposefully comparable washed out visual style approaching black and white, they might well be regarded not as two separate films but rather as one divided in two, the same story told from different vantage points. This strategy of insisting on the humanity of the men on both sides of the firing line is not unique. Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers attempts something similar with regard to the first major American battle in Vietnam, as does Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noel, an account of a Christmas ceasefire on the Western Front during World War I. But I know of nothing else that approaches the sweep of what Eastwood accomplishes in these two sobering, heartbreaking, and enduringly instructive films.
Pawns of War
It is unfortunate that the publicity team promoting Flags of Our Fathers seized a bite of dialogue for the film’s catchphrase. The trailers told us that, sometimes, a single photograph can win or lose a war. That line is uttered early on in this sad, searing, brutal film, but it isn’t ever convincing and it barely registers among the film’s concerns. The specific photograph at issue is Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning shot of six American service men raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima’s blood-soaked Mt. Suribachi on 23 February 1945. That image was used subsequently in recruiting and fund-raising campaigns and memorialized in marble statues. But Eastwood is at considerable pains to remind us that no picture won World War II or any battle within it. Science, technology, and industrial might made Americans victorious in World War II. But victory in the individual battles was purchased with the blood of the men who fought them, almost always young men barely out of high school, who gave up their lives or their limbs or their life-long peace of mind for terribly complicated reasons including duty and honor and patriotism but extensively having to do with obedience. They stormed onto beaches or rushed up mountains into harm’s way because they were told to do so by someone in authority, someone who infrequently took a comparable personal risk
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis and based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers is the story of the men in Rosenthal’s photograph and what happened to them after the click of a shutter preserved their faceless images for the propaganda machine of their own time and the history books to come. War machines need heroes, and as the travesty of official lies concerning the “friendly-fire” death of former National Football League star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan illustrates, war machine propaganda will create heroes if necessary. And manipulative propaganda is a central concern in this film. Though rumors that Rosenthal’s snapshot was staged are unfounded, almost everything the photo appears to communicate is tinged with irony. The picture would seem to represent victory and undaunted courage, but it actually captured neither. It was taken on the fifth day of a battle for Iwo Jima that would continue on for another grisly five weeks. And the flag the soldiers planted was the second, a reenactment, a replacement for the original, which was ordered taken down as a souvenir for a ranking officer who had little to do with its planting. The men were not under fire at the time either flag was flown. But neither was victory at hand, and three of the six soldiers would lay down their lives in the weeks immediately ahead. The other three were whisked home to spearhead a publicity campaign arising out of the photograph, but all felt uncomfortable about being utilized in this fashion, each suffering some survivor’s guilt and embarrassment over finding themselves in the rear when the men with whom they served were still facing the enemy in the field.
The three survivors were navy medical corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). In the film, this trio is subjected to a series of indignities as they go about their assignment of helping promote investment in war bonds. Gagnon adapts to the role most comfortably. Bradley does his duty with the resolve of Sisyphus rolling his rock up hill. But Hayes falls apart and spends most of his time in a teary, alcoholic fog. Though Bradley’s story is the focal one, Hayes’s is the more unsettling and traumatic (and the subject of the 1961 film The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis). A Pima Indian, Hayes was forced to endure racial stereotyping and discrimination, even while being hailed as a hero.
Stateside, all these young men are asked to dress once again in battle gear and climb a papier-mâché “mountain” to reenact their famous flag-planting “heroics” before screaming fans at a Soldier’s Field football game in Chicago, or to speak at a banquet where dessert is an ice-cream sculpture in the shape of Rosenthal’s photograph. The experience is so dispiriting that the soldiers never speak of it afterwards. Doc Bradley’s son James (Tom McCarthy) learns what his father went through only after his father’s death five decades later.
Flags of Our Fathers is structured as a montage. The film cuts back and forth in time from the three survivors on their fundraising tour to the withering fight for Iwo Jima with scenes of appalling violence reminiscent of those in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. As did Spielberg’s, Eastwood’s camera emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the dying. The machine gunners spray the beaches with their bullets and who is hit and who is missed has nothing to do with the attacking soldiers’ actions. The brave and the swift are just as likely to die as the terrified and the slow. The dead and the wounded and the unharmed all do exactly the same thing before the bullets destroy their lives, maim them, or fortunately fly by, most likely to strike someone else.
Eventually, due to superior firepower from the armada offshore and a nearly four to one American numerical advantage (seventy-seven thousand to about twenty-two thousand), first Mt. Suribachi and eventually the entire seven square mile island is taken. And in that process, though they both resolutely reject being designated “heroes,” Bradley and Hayes, in particular, really do exhibit courage under fire. Though like all the men in the Iwo Jima assault and, in fact, all the men sent into the front lines of wars throughout history, they are mere human cogs in a massive military machine. They may have families who love them and girlfriends or wives waiting for them back home, but to those who command them they are pawns in a live chess match. They are expendable in the service of a greater objective. Eastwood drives this point home repeatedly. Using young, not-well-known actors, he makes his characters barely distinguishable, one from the next. Early on, when a marine falls overboard as the American armada sails toward Iwo Jima’s black sands, no ship slows or circles back, no lifeboat is dispatched to rescue him. The navy has more important concerns than one man desperately treading water in the Pacific brine.
Flags of Our Fathers is not an antiwar film in the direct political way Apocalypse Now is an antiwar film. In fact, Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t address the larger politics of war at all. It doesn’t invoke Pearl Harbor or the Bataan Death March. It pointedly does, however, take a very jaundiced view of how soldiers are regarded by the military institutions they serve. The film doesn’t suggest that it might actually be otherwise, but it does insist that the dignity and even the survival of its individual troops are low among military priorities. And that’s something for us all to bear in mind on any occasion that as a nation we ask our sons, and now our daughters too, to take up arms on our behalf.
In war as captured by the live camera or staged for a cinematic reenactment, men dig trenches or fox holes, set up defense perimeters, string camouflage, and check their weapons. When the time comes, they advance on their enemy, firing round after round and lobbing grenades, or they hold their position when advanced upon, strafing their attackers with machine-gun fire or pounding them with mortar shells. Everywhere they die: ripped apart by bullets or shrapnel, blown up by explosions, seared with engulfing flame.
Such is war as humankind has practiced it in one form or another for 150 years, and such is the action of war cinema as we commonly encounter it, almost always told from “our” point of view, our American point of view in American movies. But in Letters from Iwo Jima, written by Iris Yamashita, Eastwood has dared to make a war movie that situates us with “them” and shows us war from the other side, where, surprise, it is just as horrible, just as heartbreaking, and ever so damned pointless. By the time the Americans invaded the tiny barren island in February 1945, the outcome of World War II was no longer really in doubt. The Japanese fought on, but they did so out of the suicidal national pride of their leaders, not, at least for the honest and realistic among them, in continuing hopes of victory. The Americans wanted Iwo Jima as an airbase for bombing raids on the Japanese mainland, but the war would not have turned out differently had the Americans opted for some other strategy. Meanwhile, the Japanese commanders on Iwo Jima had little expectation of repelling the invaders, and had they simply surrendered without firing a shot they barely would have hastened their nation’s ultimate defeat. Instead, the Japanese fought fiercely and extracted an enormous price in American blood. The invasion cost the lives of seven thousand marines, one-third of all marines who died in both theaters of World War II. The Japanese defenders, of course, fighting without air support or the slimmest hopes of reinforcement, paid dearly. Their orders from Tokyo were to fight to the death, and they did. Less than five percent of their troops, approximately one thousand men, mostly wounded, survived.
History, of course, is written by the victors. Had Japan won the war, the ferocious defenders of Iwo Jima would have been regarded as heroes akin to the Spartans at Thermopylae. Instead, general American history has painted the Japanese defenders as fanatical adherents to a nationalistic cult that expected death as a requisite of defeat. Such elements certainly existed within Japanese culture at the time, as exemplified by the Kamikaze and the hari-kari practiced by certain defeated military commanders. And in Letters from Iwo Jima, this attitude is portrayed by Colonel Adachi (Toshi Toda) who orders his men to grenade themselves when they cannot hold Mt. Suribachi in the early days of the battle.
But Eastwood’s overall depiction of the Japanese defenders is appropriately multidimensional. Though they may be treated as pawns, armies made up of human beings who emerge from families and are cared for by loved ones and friends. We meet an array of such individuals here. Most endearing is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker with a cherished wife and a baby daughter he’s never seen. Saigo is a simple man proud of his profession and devoted to his family. He wants nothing but to grow old with his wife and enjoy the rearing of his progeny. Saigo resents that he has been sent to a desolate island to toil on doomed fortifications, then to kill Americans with whom he has no quarrel and ultimately to die at their hands or surviving that, should he refuse to take his own life, from the bullet of a Japanese superior.
The nobleman Colonel Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) offers a dramatic contrast to Saigo. Nishi’s family is wealthy and well-connected. He has traveled widely and won a medal in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He counts Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks among his acquaintances. And when the platoon he leads captures an American GI, he insists that the man be treated humanely. Unlike Saigo, Nishi could have avoided service at Iwo Jima. He wasn’t drafted; he volunteered. And he did so knowing his command there likely would take his life.
Private Shimizu (Ryo Kase) provides another contrast still. Shimizu was trained in the stern Kempeitai, the military police corps, but eventually was kicked out for having too soft a heart. Saigo thinks Shimizu is a spy sent to inform on men who complain of their circumstances and fate. And such is the indoctrination Shimizu has endured that he thinks he should be such a man, but such is his instinctive resistance to his training that he can’t bring himself to be the kind of man his superiors desire.
The most complex of the characters we encounter is the island’s chief commander General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). Like Saigo, Kuribayashi is devoted to his wife and family, and he suffers touchingly mundane regrets over such issues as failing to finish a kitchen remodeling project before leaving for Iwo Jima. Like Saigo, Kuribayashi writes letters to his wife almost every day, even when little likelihood remains that they ever will be delivered. But the general is a man endowed with the power of command. He is a career officer who trained for a time with the American cavalry, and he is a brilliant military strategist. He is also a modern man, appalled by cruel military authority that treats its infantry like draft animals to be whipped into obedience rather than inspired and led. Like Saigo and Nishi, he feels affection rather than animosity toward the Americans.
But Kuribayashi’s sense of military duty requires that he carry out his orders to the best of his ability. Shortly after taking command, he concludes that he cannot hold Iwo Jima against the kind of attack the Americans are sure to mount. His troops cannot win. But perhaps if he plans carefully enough and if his men fight hard enough, he can extract so heavy a price that the Americans will lose heart before invading his homeland. Eastwood nowhere raises this issue— the Americans’ conviction that on their own soil the Japanese will fight them street to street, house to house—but those familiar with what comes next can’t help but connect the stand at Iwo Jima first to the devastating firebombing campaign that, as Errol Morris points out in Fog of War, wiped out a majority of the civilian populations in sixty-seven cities, many as large as Cleveland, St. Louis, and Detroit, and ultimately to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two doomed places that in eye blinks of fire surrendered more than two-hundred thousand souls to atomic weapons.
Thus in Kuribayashi, Eastwood finds a tragic paradox. The general is a good man who has devoted his life to a sorry business. He is smart, and he is brave. He is loyal and kind. He is a visionary. And he is utterly blind. He sustains a battle he cannot win in a war he knows his country will surely lose. He stops the insane process of having men kill themselves rather than endure defeat. But he leads his men to certain death in service of an unexamined ideal. Eastwood is attracted to the valor and honor of men like Kuribayashi who are willing to sacrifice for things greater than self, but in the service of war, they waste the very qualities he admires.
The Lessons of War
These are attitudes, one gathers, that Clint Eastwood applies to the current president of the United States. Eastwood’s politics are fascinating to anyone who has interviewed him or read his public commentary. Though he denounces all efforts to read a social or political agenda into any of his pictures, for the last two decades his films have won more plaudits from the left than from the right. Earlier, however, he was excoriated by liberals as fascistic for his violent and vengeful Dirty Harry movies of the 1970s and 1980s. And he remains a registered Republican and a fan of Ronald Reagan. He says he admires George W. Bush’s determination to govern by principle rather than by poll. But he has opposed the war in Iraq from the outset.
Eastwood acknowledges that Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are antiwar films, though he argues they both proceeded from his interest in character rather than overarching theme. And that, presumably, is why Eastwood has opposed the war in Iraq. People interest him, and wars are very bad for the people involved in them. The Bush administration could learn a great deal from the way Eastwood looks at the world in these two films. We invaded Iraq with very little understanding of the people who live there. Many in the Bush administration were ignorant of the fundamentals of Islam and the deep animosities harbored toward one another by the Sunnis and the Shiites. This is all the more mysterious because the fear of intractable civil war is exactly what kept the first President Bush from toppling Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Unlike his father, the current President Bush seemed to believe that defeating Saddam’s army and taking Baghdad meant the end of hostilities, and thus his 2 May 2003, speech announcing mission accomplished and the end of “major combat operations.” But Bush did not know his enemy, did not know his enemy’s culture, and has squandered his presidency as a result of this ignorance. Since Bush’s victory speech, more than 3,400 American soldiers and at least twenty times (maybe two hundred times) as many Iraqis have died in the Second Gulf War, a war America started without provocation and ultimately without excuse. Eastwood’s assessment of General Kuribayashi should be instructive. The general can be praised for his loyalty and honor, but history can judge him only as lacking the courage to save the lives of his men and those who opposed them. They died for no purpose whatsoever. Bush’s loyalty is beyond question, but even if we grant him honor we cannot imagine a historical judgment any more positive than Kuribayashi’s. He doesn’t seem to know what Eastwood does, that the fallen in Iraq aren’t simply numbers on a disappointing chart chronicling a foreign policy gone awry; they are once full, robust lives thrown away for a poor idea. They are his legacy. They are his eternal shame.
Fredrick Barton is film critic for Gambit Weekly and author of the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, With Extreme Prejudice, and A House Divided, which won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novel. He is Professor of English and Provost at the University of New Orleans.