Monday, October 23, 2006

A Thought-Provoking Look at Heroism – “Flags of Ours Fathers,” Directed by Clint Eastwood

Friday night was a night I will not soon forget. Several hundred gathered at the AMC Loews Theater across from Boston Common for a special screening of “Flags of Our Fathers.” The event was planned as a fundraiser for the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. ( Prior to the screening of the film, we were greeted by Chris Randolph, the Foundation’s CEO. He, in turn, introduced three Marine Corps General Officers who were in attendance, including Gen. William L. "Spider" Nyland USMC (Ret.), former Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and LT General-designate Richard F. Natonski, former commanding general of the historic 1st Marine Division.

Each of the speakers briefly alluded to the fact that we were gathered at an event that managed to weave together past, present and future. The past was being honored by the showing of the film about Iwo Jima and those who fought there. We were introduced to two veterans of the Iwo Jima campaign. Their presence in our midst was warmly acknowledged with a standing ovation. The present was represented by the dozens of uniformed Marines in the audience, many of whom have recently returned from service in Afghanistan and Iraq. The future was embodied in the ROTC students in attendance, and by the presence of a U. Mass. student who is a current MCSF scholarship recipient. He is the son of a Marine, and he himself had also served as an enlisted Marine.

The speakers tied our present circumstances – a nation weary of war and massive casualties – with the situation that existed in 1945 when the Iwo Jima campaign was waged and the 7th War Bond drive was undertaken with the Iwo Jima “heroes” as the visible spokesmen.

Clint Eastwood has crafted a moving and thought-provoking look at the issue of heroism – true and imagined. Through the medium of this film, he addresses a number of thorny issues: how we use propaganda and hype to rally support for a war effort, how we create heroes and then cast them aside, how well we support those who have fought our wars and done our dirty work. This film is bloody and frank in its depiction of the horror of war – and of its aftermath.

I walked away from my viewing of the film with the feeling that Eastwood and the entire creative team behind the film had presented a fairly balanced picture. They managed to pay tribute to those who fought and died on Iwo Jima – as well as those who fought and lived – while asking appropriately tough questions about heroism and how we communicate truth and myth for the “greater good.”

At another level, the film explores the price that the survivors had to pay throughout the rest of their lives in terms of the memories they carried of seeing their buddies fall beside them in battle. Over and over they repeated the mantra, “The real heroes of Iwo Jima died there.” The price they paid was a steep one. Three of the flagraisers died on Iwo Jima within days of the storied flagraising. Ira Hayes died in a drunken stupor just a few years after the statue had been dedicated. Rene Gagnon was unable to “cash in” on his hero status, and despite glib promises of prestigious jobs, lived his life humbly working as a janitor in Manchester, New Hampshire. James Bradley lived a quiet life as a funeral director in Wisconsin, but was haunted throughout his lifetime with the image of his best friend, Iggy, who had been captured and mutilated by the Japanese. The film shies away from showing the horrors that had been inflicted upon Iggy; the book is graphic in its description of the atrocities that were visited upon Iggy.

On the way out of the theater, I had a chance to ask the two gentlemen who had fought on Iwo Jima – now well into their 80’s – if what we had seen on the screen was a fair and accurate depiction of what they had experienced on that Pacific island so many decades ago. They assured me that the movie had done a very credible job of capturing the reality of that bloody campaign.

In a moving scene that reminded me of conversations I had with my father as he lay dying, Bradley whispers to his son: “I wish I had been a better father to you.” In that brief vignette, Eastwood demonstrates that he has his finger on the pulse of a universal human experience; we all carry thoughts of things that we regret. War hero or ordinary citizen, we harbor regrets of actions we wish we could take back, ill-chosen words we wish we could retract, deeds undone we wish we could now perform, and words of comfort and hope we could easily have uttered yet never took the time or found the occasion to do so.

This is a movie that should be seen and pondered. One “take away” for me is to be careful to properly thank those who have served and who continue to serve – treating them not as superhuman heroes – but as ordinary humans beings who have had the courage and character to undertake extraordinarily difficult tasks that were not tasks of their own choosing, but to which they had sworn an oath to undertake if so ordered.


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