Misunderstanding Iwo Jima



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© Jack Cashill

Courtesy of wnd.com
February 8, 2007

I had postponed seeing Clinton Eastwood’s new movie, Letters From Iwo Jima, for the simple reason that the critics liked it. By and large, they are an even more daft bunch than the people who make the movies. They gave the film the National Board of Review’s “best picture” award and helped goose it on for an Oscar nod.

Letters attracted a critical buzz primarily because it did not ask the audience to do anything as vaguely patriotic as root for America during a time of war, even if another war. The film looks instead at the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective.

I had presumed that to be so well received the movie had to be anti-war, anti-military, anti-American, or, most likely, all of the above. I overlooked a fourth possibility, the actual one: the critics simply did not understand it.

In the way of background, the island of Iwo Jima had critical strategic significance for the United States and Japan in what proved to be the last year of the Pacific War, and both sides knew it. Only a film critic could describe the battle as “pointless.”

Iwo Jima’s airfields, if captured, would halve the distance that B-29 bombers needed to fly to reach the Japanese mainland. These airfields would also provide a base for P-51 Mustang fighters, which could then escort the bombers on their essential and lethal raids.

Given the way the Japanese had previously defended beaches, U.S. planners worked under the presumption that the island would fall in five days. As in such warlike games as chess or football, however, real war allows each side to make intelligent decisions to advance its own interests.

Liberal critics of the Iraq War have overlooked this truism. They seem to have convinced themselves that all American failures result from “blunders” or “gross mismanagement” for which someone should “apologize.” They give little credit to the opposing forces for resisting creatively and none at all to themselves for encouraging that resistance.

The struggle for Iwo Jima involved just such strategic thinking from a savvy adversary, which is why it proved so costly. Beginning on February 19, 1945 the five hellish weeks of Iwo Jima cost more than twice as many American lives as the four years of Iraq.

Still, as far as I know, there were no calls to bring our troops home “now” or to “redeploy” them to some safer place. The 7,000 Cindy Sheehans of Iwo Jima suffered in heroic silence.

Throughout the Pacific War, the American brass were highly respectful of their troops’ lives. The Iwo Jima dead represented nearly one-third of all the Marines killed in the Pacific.

The battle proved so costly because Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, one of the protagonists of the film, removed the defenses from the beach, as was normative, and shifted them deep into the island’s volcanic terrain, most prominently Mount Suribachi.

Kuribayashi had a goal. By digging in, he hoped to slow the Americans down and buy the homeland extra time. As portrayed, he was more rational than his militaristic colleagues and correspondingly more humane.

Few of his colleagues were either rational or humane. The movie begins with a pair of Japanese grunts amiably grousing about the endless digging. "Damn this island,” complains Saigo, the movie’s beleaguered everyman. “The Americans can have it."

An officer overhears the pair and proceeds to beat them brutally. Immediately, the viewer learns that even if deep down we are all alike, the ultranationalist Japanese warrior code has no tolerance for that common humanity.

The latter is an essential point seemingly lost on the critical community. Eastwood is not equating the Japanese warrior code with America’s, past or present, he is contrasting it. Movie fans need only recall the “slapping scene” in Patton, a true life incident in which the most valuable general of a nation at war loses his command for striking a soldier once. If anything, the American military ethos today is even more restrained.

The viewer sees the unholy pseudo-Bushido code in action time and again. The Japanese warrior aims at the red cross on a medic’s helmet to demoralize the enemy. He kills animals gratuitously to harden himself. He bayonets prisoners repeatedly to indulge his blood lust. He booby traps his body when wounded to kill even those who would help him. He resorts finally to suicide bombing and is eager to chop off the head of his fellows who hesitate to do the same.

Americans don’t behave this way. Today, clearly, it is our opponents who chop off heads and blow themselves up. Like the Japanese of the WW II era, the Islamic jihadists have adopted a manic, inhuman orthodoxy that subverts their common humanity and runs fully counter to anyone’s idea of natural law.

In the film’s most revealing moment, a third Japanese protagonist, Baron Nishi, an equestrian gold medalist, finds a letter on a dead American P.O.W. from the boy’s mother. He reads it. She talks of a how their dog dug a hole under the fence and of other sweetly mundane details before reminding him to come home safely and asking him to remember what she had told him, “Always do what is right, because it is right."

This phrase, properly understood, suggests a universal code of behavior imposed by God and/or nature and valid everywhere. Upon hearing the letter read, one soldier remarks that it is just the kind of advice his mother gave him. It is the kind of advice that mothers everywhere are inclined to give.

According to Thomas Aquinas, to grasp the spirit of the universal, the individual must reason his way through a series of precepts, the most important of which is self-preservation. Although the Japanese on Iwo Jima, like the suicide bombers in the Mideast, put almost no value on self or on reason, the three protagonists of the film— Kuribayashi, Saigo, and Nishi—all do. Herein lies the film’s dramatic tension, its essential conflict being between the three and their fellow soldiers.

They resist the warrior code for different reasons: Saigo because he is a simple baker, a husband and soon-to-be-father drafted into a war he does not understand; Kuribayashi and Nishi resist because they have both been exposed to a morally superior way of thinking and behaving, namely America’s.

Yes, America’s. Both have visited and have been transformed by the experience. The American soldiers we see in the film are not all the “mirror image” of the typical Japanese soldier as the critics would have us believe, nothing like it.

When two Japanese soldiers surrender to a platoon, the young American officer insists that his men not shoot. Instead, he orders two of the men to hold them as prisoners. True, when the rest of platoon leaves, one of the men shoots the prisoners anyhow, but only after rationalizing, however speciously, why he has no better or safer option. He does so, though, in violation of his own code and to the dismay of his buddy.

In a second scene, with the battle all but over, another platoon surrounds Saigo. Deranged by grief, he attacks the platoon with a shovel. Instead of shooting him, as the soldiers have every right to do, they disable him with the butt of a rifle.

The final scene, a telling one, finds a smiling Saigo lying on a stretcher at the edge of the beach amidst a row of identical stretchers bearing Americans. He has found a place among a people who respect his humanity just as they do their own.

“It is Eastwood's queasy triumph,” writes Scott Foundas of the Village Voice, “that, when we hear those words, [“Do what’s right “. . . ] regardless of what language we speak, they have rarely sounded more foreign. “

As Foudras’ churlish little remark makes clear, these critics fail to understand Letters from Iwo Jima because they fail to understand America.

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