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Patriotic Fervor and the Truth About Iwo Jima...By Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhal

October 21 2006 at 6:13 PM
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Patriotic Fervor and the Truth About Iwo Jima

By Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhal

3-04-02: Fact & Fiction

Patriotic Fervor and the Truth About Iwo Jima
By Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall
http://hnn.us/articles/599.html

Ms. Marling is professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota. Mr. Wetenhall is executive director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Editor's Note: Because Iwo Jima has been in the news, we decided to republish this piece, which first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1993.

IWO JIMA has a special place in our nation’s past. For many Americans it is a place where emotion merges with memory, where feeling and facts become one. It is a holy place in our civil religion, where emotions gather and linger--for generations. With our notes and books and claims of objectivity, we historians sometimes trespass--at our peril--upon this terrain where others have fought and died.

When we wrote about the commemoration of the World War II battle at Iwo Jima in Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Harvard University Press, 1991), we, as outside observers, became part of the process of remembering deeds of war. But quite unintentionally, we were dragged into a vortex of misremembering, as hearsay and emotion quickly subsumed the truth.

On February 23rd, 1945, the fifth day of the bloody battle of Iwo Jima, Marines were ordered to take Mount Suribachi, the besieged Japanese stronghold. A 40-man patrol ascended the volcanic slope, attained the summit, and hoisted "Old Glory" on a makeshift flagpole. That was at 10:35 a.m., precisely. Horns blew. Bells tolled. Cheers rang out from American positions below. "Mopping up" skirmishes followed, but, within an hour, the men of Easy Company had declared Suirbachi secure.

Early that afternoon, some combat photographers circumvented security outposts and climbed up to the restricted position. They arrived at the top just in time to witness, and photograph, an impromptu ceremony as the first, historic flag was exchanged for a larger one.

Within a week, the Associated Press spread AP photographer Joe Rosenthal's triumphant picture across front pages nationwide, accompanied by stirring headlines detailing the capture of Suribachi. The image captivated war-weary America and was rapturously compared with Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People," with Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware," even with Leonardo's "Last Supper."

In the course of the next few weeks, the story of the first flag merged with the photo of the second one. The original flag-raisers faded into anonymity while the country became obsessed with the identities of the faceless heroes in Rosenthal's picture. The aesthetic power of the photo seemed to demand a full and revised explanation of how it became to be taken. So history was rewritten--not by conspiracy, but through partial truths, omissions, overstatements, and poetic license. Before long, the gallant men in Rosenthal's photograph--by now a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph--came to be considered the original heroes.

Our book simply retold the facts of the battle and sorted out the confusion that followed. We traced the evolving myth of Iwo Jima from John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima, through the booze-soaked martyrdom of flag-raiser Ira Hayes (the hapless last figure in the Rosenthal photograph), to the oversized colossus of the Marine Corps Memorial near Washington. We ended with the somber memories of the men who fought the battle and their poignant reflections on the tragedy of war. Why did this matter? The truth was important to the men who were there, many of whom complained to us that their deeds had been revised for the sake of public relations. In a larger sense, it was values such as truth and justice for which World War II was fought, not half-truths and orchestrated sentiment.

Yes, we thought we had this story nailed: we would set the popular misconceptions straight once and for all. What we couldn't foresee was that our book would embroil us in a tragi-comical farce, all in the name of patriotism or outright nostalgia.

Shortly after publication, our account was blindsided by Richard Harwood, The Washington Post's ombudsman, in a review in that newspaper that expressed outrage that we had dared to broach the very subject of the first flag-raising. He accused us of criticizing Rosenthal's photo as "phony" and the men in it as "imposters." But we never wrote this. In fact, we went to considerable lengths to prove that the photo was legitimate, the men reluctant heroes who consistently said they had not dodged bullets to raise the flag, but had simply replaced one flag with another. Mr. Harwood assumed the true story somehow undermined the valor of those who participated (it did not), and he set us up as straw men for a conspiracy theory--that the deception was planned--that the book overtly disproves.

A few weeks later, The New York Times took the same tack under the headline: "Birth of an Icon, but an Illegitimate One." The review attributed to us--again falsely--allegations that the Iwo Jima icon was "illegitimate, a fraud, a dark hoax unworthy of the men who died in that battle."

The review in The Times touched off a barrage of letters to the editor. G. Greely Wells, the oft-proclaimed "man who carried the flag" to the foot of Suribachi, got three columns of space in The Times's op-ed page to rebut our book--space he used to recount, with pristine accuracy, facts that he might have read on our Page 42. (Mr. Wells hadn't read the book. We called him the day that his column appeared and offered to send him one. He replied that he had ordered one, but that it had not yet arrived.)

Undeterred, Mr. Wells took his crusade to National Public Radio, where Alex Chadwick of "Morning Edition" announced to the nation's breakfast tables that we had pronounced the Iwo Jima photo "staged propaganda." Had he bothered to read the book, he might have seen the photo and caption on Page 79 that asserts the "spontaneity" of Rosenthal's picture.

MORE ANGRY LETTERS followed in The Times, and other newspapers picked up the story--often assembling their opinions from misstatements contained in the Post and Times reviews. The best came from the West Coast: a column by William Endicott in The Sacramento Bee titled "Can an Icon Sue for Libel?" Mr. Endicott blasted us as leftist revisionists and tried to bury our account by invoking his venerable father: "My dad watched from a troop transport as the flag was hoisted, and he never forgot the sight for as long as he lived."

But the great moment that Endicott senior remembered was not the one in the Rosenthal photograph. That moment occurred, that flag was raised at 10:35 A.M. Photographed by Louis Lowery of Leatherneck magazine, it is a forgotten footnote in history.

Once begun, distortions spread by the news media are almost impossible to correct. The New York Times rejected no fewer than three rebuttal letters from us. Editors called us twice to negotiate what they might print: 100 words without reference to any error in the Times review. In the end, even though they had printed six columns of misdirected attacks inspired by their inaccurate review, the newspaper editors refused to publish anything from us.

Ironically, our experience demonstrates precisely how the process of patriotic myth-making works. It isn't a conspiracy; it isn't orchestrated. It is a series of assumptions, a few leaps of faith. A reviewer who's too busy, complacent, or lazy to read carefully and check the facts. An editor too pompous to concede that the "Fourth Estate" might have gotten something wrong. Over time, a story is crafted out of scraps and innuendo. This was the very process that had led to the convolution of the Iwo Jima story in the first place--the very web of half truths and hearsay that we had worked so hard to untangle.

IN THE END, though, we were the ones who were wrong. We underestimated the patriotic fervor that we had so carefully chronicled. It is an overwhelming reverence for the heroic feeling of the Iwo Jima myth that still renders the facts of its birth--to some people, at least--irrelevant. Americans want desperately for the real-life story of the heroes of Mount Suribachi to turn out like the Duke's heart-rending martyrdom in Sands of Iwo Jima, when his last vision was the raising of Old Glory amidst a shower of enemy fire. The famous War Bond poster--"Now All Together"--made Rosenthal's image look so real that it had to be true. And the Marine Corps Memorial stands proudly as the last great vestige of monumental realism in American sculpture--big, commanding, more real that reality. In the noble cause of celebrating our nation's reverence for truth and justice, Americans prefer to let reality slip by, to ignore inconvenient facts.

But Americans' yearning goes deeper than a willingness to believe Hollywood formula and fantasy. It involves the preservation of a passionate faith in the hero, a belief in the individual's ability to change the course of history (the valor of Delacroix's flag-waving "Liberty" and the resolve of Leutze's "Washington"), a faith now so distressingly contradicted by the 58,180 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We discovered an unusual phenomenon in the course of our research: the fake flag-raisers, people who insisted they had been in Rosenthal's picture and had helped hoist the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima. There were, and are, a lot of them.

Some Iwo vet, probably a fine Marine, spins a few Pacific yarns in a local tavern. Over the course of years, his story takes him from the D-Day landing, to the base of Suribachi, and on up its sulfurous slopes, until one unfortunate evening, he tells how he grabbed a length of metal pipe and helped his buddies hoist Old Glory in the Pacific breeze. Before he knows it, somebody at the next table tips off a reporter. An interview. A picture. A story in the hometown newspaper. Then the wire services. Another hero. And for the rest of his life, this unlucky hero will have to go on spinning his yarn to sustain his newfound glory.

And so what difference is there between getting caught up in a good story and creating a national myth?

Hardly any.

This piece first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 1993, and is reprinted with permission.

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