Thursday, October 19, 2006

“Flags of Our Fathers” – A Timely Look at a Bloody Battle in Our History

Quite a while ago, Nick Olmsted, a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, recommended that I read “Flags of Our Fathers.” I am glad that I finally got around to taking his advice. This story struck me on many levels at once, and this seems to be an opportune time to share some of my thoughts about this remarkable book, written by James Bradley, the son of one of the six Marines whose iconic picture of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima riveted a war-weary nation.

The film based on this book is due to be released tomorrow. My friend, Nate Fick, former Marines Corps officer and author of “One Bullet Away,” had invited me to attend a special screening of the film tomorrow evening in Boston. There will be many Marines present for this gala event to raise funds for a scholarship program for the families of Marines who have fallen in combat. Here is how Nate described to me the work of the scholarship committee:

The Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation will be showing a benefit premier of "Flags of Our Fathers" at the AMC Theater on Boston Common on Friday 20 October. Military guests of honor will include BGen John Kelly, legislative assistant to CMC, former ACMC’s Generals Nyland and Neal, and perhaps others.

For those who don't know, the MCSF is committed to funding higher education for the children of Marines and Navy Corpsmen, especiallythose killed in action. It's a wonderful organization, and one I've been proud to be involved with during the past several years.

So, before I am influenced by the film’s portrayal of the events on Iwo Jima and the stories of the six men - Harlon Block, James Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Frank Sousley, Mike Strank - whose picture became symbolic of a nation at war, I will share my take on the book. A review of the film will follow in a few days.

James Bradley was motivated to write “Flags of Our Fathers” after the death of his father. As the family sorted through the papers that John Bradley left behind, they found three cardboard boxes full of photos and documents related to Iwo Jima. Finding this secret stash shocked the Bradleys, since James had refused to discuss his role as a famous flagraiser.

“I hungered to know the heroic part of my dad. Try as I might I could never get him to tell me about it.

‘The real heroes of Iwo Jima,’ he said once, coming as close as he ever would, are the guys who didn’t come back.’ (Page 4)

My siblings and I had a similar experience. My father, who served in India with the U.S. Army Air Corps, hardly ever talked about his years of service that cost him four years of his life and compromised his health until he died at the relatively young age of 65. It was as if he had locked that part of his life away in some inaccessible vault. The closest he came to revealing that chapter of his life was to lead us in singing Army marching songs that seemed to play in his head like a continuous loop. Our frequent family drives in the country were filled with many hours of such songs. We whiled away the hours and the miles by singing “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah,” “Alice Blue Gown,” “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I felt as if Bradley had touched a special rewind button when he wrote these words about the memorial service the family held when they were able to visit Iwo Jima in 1998:

“When I was finished with my talk, I couldn’t look up at the faces in front of me. I sensed the strong emotion in the air. Quietly, I suggested that in honor of my dad, we all sing the only two songs John Bradley ever admitted to knowing: ‘Home on the Range’ and ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’” (page 14)

Bradley chose an epigraph for the second chapter of the book that is timeless and haunting:

“All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys.” Herman Melville (Page 17)

Bradley lays out in clear terms why he chose to undertake the project of writing the book and sharing the stories of the Iwo Jima flagraisers:

“That was the point, I reminded myself, the point of my quest: to bring these boys back to life, or a kind of life, to let them live again in the country’s memory. Starting with my father, and continuing with the other five.

That is how we always keep our beloved dead alive, isn’t it? By telling stories abut them; true stories. It works that way with our national past as well. Keeping it alive by telling stories.”
(Page 17)

I have long been a strong believer in the power of narrative to capture our imaginations and our hearts. The job that James Bradley and Ron Powers have done in this book reaffirms my faith in the power of a well-told story. By Bradley bringing back to life the six Iwo Jima flagraisers and their comrades who fell in battle there, I felt as if he were also connecting me to a piece of my father’s history and bringing him back to life, as well. As you can imagine, reading this book evoked powerful emotions.

This book does a very effect job of contrasting the sanitized view that civilians have of war with the messy reality experienced by those in the midst of the fighting:

“To the civilian noncombatants, war was ‘knowable’ and ‘understandable.’ Orderly files of men and machines marching off to war, flags waving, patriotic songs playing. War could be clear and logical to those who had not touched its barb.

But battle veterans quickly lost a sense of war’s certitude. Images of horror they could scarcely comprehend invaded their thoughts tortured their minds. Bewildered and numbed, they cold not unburden themselves to their civilian counterparts, who could never comprehend through mere words.

Mike, Ira, and Harlon – these three boys back from the Pacific Heart of Darkness – now embraced death. Two were convinced that their next battle would be their last. And one lingered on for ten years before he was consumed by a living nightmare.”
(Page 90)

“Today, a battle-scarred Ira Hayes would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and there would be understanding and treatment available to him. But in the late forties and early fifties, Ira had to suffer alone. Suffer daily with images of and misplaced guilt over his 'good buddies who didn’t come back.’ (Page 333)

Post traumatic stress disorder – or PTSD - reared its ugly head over Iwo Jima and planted its flag in the hearts of those who fought there - and who have fought in every subsequent battle from Pusan and Pork Chop Hill to Khe Sahn and Hamburger Hill to Tikrit and Falujah. (I will return to the topic of PTSD in a series of articles in the coming weeks.)

Throughout the book, Bradley does justice to the legacy of the Iwo Jima flagraisers by addressing an issue that haunted each of them – the question of what it truly means to be a hero. The flagraisers felt that fate had singled them out for notoriety and the label of “hero,” but each man felt in his heart that the real heroes were the ones who did not live to see the flag raised or the parades planned or the War Bond rallies held.

“And finally, I found a full-page newspaper ad from the Seventh Bond Tour, which he had participated in. It screamed: ‘You’ve seen the photo, you’ve heard him on radio, now in person in Milwaukee County Stadium, see Iwo Jima hero John H. Bradley!’

Hero. In that misunderstood and corrupted word, I think lay the final reason for John Bradley’s silence.

Today the word ‘hero’ has been diminished, confused with ‘celebrity.’ But in my father’s generation the word meant something.

Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion. However he valued or devalued his own achievement, it did stand as an accomplishment.

The moment that saddled my father with the label of ‘hero’ contained no action worthy of remembering. When he was shown the photo for the first time, he had no idea what he was looking at. He did not recognize himself or any of the others. The raising of that pole was as forgettable as tying the laces of his boots.

The irony, of course, was that Doc Bradley was indeed a hero on Iwo Jima – many times over. The flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically. In 1998 Dr. James Wittmeier, my father’s medical supervisor in Iwo, sat beside me silently contemplating my request for him to explain, or speculate on, why my dad never talked about that time. Finally, after many long minutes, he turned to me and softly said, ‘You ever hold a broken raw egg in your hands? Well, that’s how your father and I help young men’s heads.’ The heads of real heroes, dying in my father’s arms.

So, he knew real heroism. He could separate the real thing from the image, the fluff. And no matter how many millions of people thought otherwise, he understood that this image of heroism was not the real thing.” (Pages 260-261)

“Flags of Our Fathers” is a moving and loving tribute to heroes – real and perceived. I am glad that Nick Olmsted pointed the way to it. I hope that Clint Eastwood and Stephen Spielberg’s translation of the story to the screen will honor the spirit of the men who fought on Iwo Jima.



Anonymous said...

Timely is right.

I pray this film helps build some compassion for those who have entered battle and given so much for this country and the world in the name of freedom. May it inspire a powerful new generation of peace makers.

I imagine the term, "War is hell" is more than just a phrase.


jsavard said...

Amen Rick, Amen!!!!!