From the Masters at the Movies column in the September 2007 issue of Perspectives

Lessons from Iwo Jima

John W. Dower, September 2007

Editor's Note: See the introductory note by Robert Brent Toplin, the series editor.

In February 1945, a U.S. force of some 70,000 Marines invaded Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island 522 miles south of Tokyo defended by over 22,000 Japanese. American intelligence expected the island to fall in five days. Instead the battle lasted seven times as long—from February 19 until March 26—ending in 6,800 U.S. fatalities, close to 20,000 U.S. wounded, and the death of 20,700 defenders. Twenty-two Marines and five Navy personnel received Medals of Honor from this ferocious engagement.

For Japanese, the final year of World War II in Asia was a blur of wholesale death overseas and on the home front as well, with U.S. air raids eventually targeting 65 cities. The nation's leaders had started two wars they could not end—first in China in 1937, and then against the United States and European colonial powers ensconced in Asia in December 1941. From the emperor on down, they were caught in the coils of their disastrous wars of choice: trapped by rhetoric, paralyzed by a blood debt to those who died in the lost cause, persistently blind to the psychology and rage of the enemy. They had no real policy other than escalating killing and dying—hoping against hope that this would persuade U.S. and British leaders to abandon their plans for invading the home islands and their demands for unconditional surrender.

Apart from momentary grief and commemoration, Iwo Jima did not register strongly on Japanese consciousness. When Hollywood director Clint Eastwood cast Japanese actors for his recent reconstructions of the battle, most knew nothing of the slaughter; and small wonder. Close to two-million Japanese died in that last year of the war—over a million fighting men (most of whom perished from starvation or illnesses related to malnutrition rather than actual combat), and a half million or more civilians in the urban air raids that began in March 1945 and continued through the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Extermination of the garrison on Iwo Jima was easily obscured in the shadow of this grander catastrophe. And the grander catastrophe itself, of course, took place long before most contemporary Japanese were born.1

In the United States, by contrast, "Iwo Jima" has always been dramatically visible, courtesy of serendipity and the camera's eye and unflagging patriotic publicity. The battle gave Americans their most graphic icon of the Pacific war: Joe Rosenthal's photograph of six Americans raising the Stars and Stripes on stumpy Mount Suribachi. This was the subject of James Bradley's probing 2000 study Flags of Our Fathers, on which Eastwood based the first of two path-breaking films about the battle—humanely deconstructing, as it were, both "victory" and "heroism." In his sequel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood took on the remarkable challenge of seeing the same battle through imagined Japanese eyes.

Both films are provocative and eminently serious, and their challenge doubles when they are viewed side-by-side. As it happens, moreover, both can be paired with intimate and accessible books. One is Bradley's bestseller. The other is a newly translated popular work by Kumiko Kakehashi, based largely on the communications and personal letters of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Iwo Jima garrison and central figure in Eastwood's Letters. Taken together, and complemented with other films and readings, there is grist here for more than a few scholarly discussions and classroom assignments.2

Iwo Jima is small and resembled hell even before the Americans invaded. Temperatures reach as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The largely barren soil is mostly volcanic ash, and digging a warren of tunnels and ventilation shafts exposed Kuribayashi's men to dangerous sulfur fumes. (Iõ-jima, the island's Japanese name, means Sulfur Island.) There is no drinkable ground water. The few civilian residents were evacuated before the battle, and U.S. aerial bombardment actually began in the summer of 1944 and was conducted on a regular basis from December. Supplies, including food, became all but cut off. Malnutrition and the illnesses accompanying this plagued the defenders even before the attack.

Eastwood's Letters includes a champion horse, but there were in fact only three horses on the island altogether, there being neither fodder nor water to maintain them. One of General Kuribayashi's many humanizing acts—and, here as elsewhere, the film accords with what historians can reconstruct of what actually took place—involved ordering his officers to eat the same meager rations as conscripts. When his personal stewards demurred, declaring that regulations required that the commanding officer be served a fixed number of dishes, he simply told them to set out the dishes and leave them empty.

Many of Kuribayashi's letters to his wife and children, especially his nine-year-old daughter Takako—"Tako-chan" in his affectionate diminutive—have survived. They are warm, pragmatic, and unusually frank for a military man on active duty. (As commander, he was able to evade the censorship routinely imposed on personal communications from the front.) We also have a good sense of his orders to his men. It was Kuribayashi who defied Tokyo by repudiating the established practice of defending his doomed island on the beachheads; he chose to fight from laboriously fortified caves and tunnels instead. And it was Kuribayashi, the general who showed rare consideration for inferiors, who informed his men that they were expected to kill 10 Americans before dying themselves.

Why die? And why in that godforsaken place? Non-Japanese rarely had or have much difficulty answering this. As one wartime piece of American journalism headlined it, "These Nips Are Nuts"; and in one way or another, this was reiterated in countless variations from the lingo of battlefield dehumanization to the "beast in the jungle" tropes of Hollywood to the jargon of academe (where "collective neurosis," "feudal legacies," fanatical "emperor worship," and the mindset of the "obedient herd" filled the diagnostic bill). In Letters from Iwo Jima—seen entirely from the Japanese side, with Japanese actors speaking their native tongue—Eastwood presents individuals with generally distinct personalities who, with some exceptions, would choose life if they could. Most could not. (In the film, two Japanese soldiers who surrender are casually killed by the Americans.)3

As with the general and his empty plates, Eastwood also humanizes the doomed defenders with small touches. We know now, for example, that while Japanese fighting men did frequently charge into hopeless battles screaming the name of the emperor, more often their final thoughts and words evoked their families back home—particularly, with young men, their mothers. Eastwood introduces this early on in Letters, in voice-over mail being read and letters being written; and in a brief scene involving a young American prisoner, he brings this full circle. The American dies in one of the caves holding a letter from his mother; a Japanese officer translates this aloud for the beleaguered soldiers clustered around, who have previously expressed hatred and contempt for the alien foe; and, however fleetingly, a spark of common identity is established.

Unlike some of his men, Kuribayashi never questioned the necessity of dying on Iwo Jima. Like Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, Kuribayashi had spent time in the United States as an attaché, admired the Americans, and thought choosing war against them was folly. Partly for this reason, he did not hold particularly distinguished commands. His assignment to Iwo Jima came in late May 1944, almost nine months before the attack, and from the outset his duty was clear in his own eyes. It was not merely to obey orders (tactically, he rejected orders to mount a beachhead defense), and not because he cherished death before dishonor more than being reunited with his family.

Kuribayashi died, and took his men with him, to buy time for his country and loved ones by slowing down the U.S. advance on the homeland. In a letter dated September 12, 1944, he wrote his wife that "When I imagine what Tokyo would look like if it were bombed—I see a burned-out desert with dead bodies lying everywhere—I'm desperate to stop them carrying out air raids." Prolonging the battle of Iwo Jima, he believed, would impede establishment of an air base that could facilitate air attacks on Japanese cities.4

This was wishful thinking. The great Tokyo air raid of March 9 and 10, which initiated the U.S. policy of systematically destroying urban centers (and Japanese morale) with firebombs, occurred in the very midst of the battle for Iwo Jima and killed around 90,000 civilians in a single night. One consequence of suicidal policies like Kuribayashi's—repeated with greater fury and fatalities in the ensuing battle of Okinawa that lasted from March into June of 1945—was to strengthen U.S. resolve to intensify the bombing and, as it transpired, deploy the new nuclear weapon as quickly as possible.
As it turned out, moreover, Iwo Jima did not actually play a major role in the U.S. bombing campaign, although it did provide marginal support.5

In a traditional jisei or death poem written before the American attack, Kuribayashi departed a bit from tradition. "Unable to complete this heavy task for our country," he wrote, "Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall." When this was released to the Japanese press following his death, Imperial Headquarters changed "so sad" to "mortified."6 Sadness is gentler. Eastwood's critically acclaimed Letters conveys this sentiment, and in giving the role of Kuribayashi to the charismatic Ken Watanabe (who was also the doomed protagonist in The Last Samurai), he reinforces our sense of the tragic waste of this battle, and perhaps of war in general.

To a certain degree, Eastwood's screenplay, written by Iris Yamashita, carries echoes of imperial Japan's own wartime feature films, which also emphasized the gentle (yasashii) personalities of male as well as female protagonists.7 Letters conveys a different ultimate message, of course; it is a eulogy for wasted lives rather than a paean to the righteousness of the emperor's holy war. What it leaves for other films and texts to dwell upon, in any case, is the obverse side of such humanism: the utter degradation of war, where the last vestiges of humanity are left behind.

As it happens, this was powerfully addressed in text and film by the Japanese themselves many decades ago. For a truly searing glimpse of the imperial military's descent into the abyss, there is still nothing that surpasses Shõhei Õoka's Fires on the Plain. Õoka, a scholar of French literature, was drafted in his mid-thirties and taken prisoner in the Philippines. His terse novelistic story of a tubercular Japanese soldier left behind to starve, published in 1951, is a classic. Madness, cannibalism, a hopeless cry for meaning or even the smallest gentle touch are Õoka's themes, and the stark film version directed by Kon Ichikawa and released in 1959 (available with English subtitles) does the novel justice.8

With this book-and-film pairing added to the recent treatments of Iwo Jima, the lessons to be learned and taught about war in the Pacific, and war in general, become more complex and compelling than ever. Still, this is only the half of it. Having gazed more closely and honestly at the ravages of combat, there still remains the more old-fashioned challenge of rethinking basic military strategy. Were Japan's war planners criminally incompetent by war's end? Did the patriotism and personal courage of commanders like Kuribayashi abet this folly? Was Iwo Jima really of critical strategic importance to the United States—or, as the military historian Robert Burrell argued recently, did the famous photo and horrific U.S. losses "create the myths that followed"?9 And, in retrospect, how should we evaluate the Allied policy of terror bombing itself?

All that is another story.

— John Dower is the Ford International Professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Notes

1. Total Japanese military fatalities between 1937 and 1945 were around 2.1 million, with most coming in the last year of the war. Civilian fatalities are more difficult to calculate. The aerial bombing of a total of 65 Japanese cities appears to have taken a minimum of 400,000 and possibly closer to 600,000 lives (over 100,000 in Tokyo alone, and over 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined). Estimates of civilian deaths in the battle of Okinawa that followed Iwo Jima range from around 80,000 to 150,000. Civilian death among settlers and others who died attempting to return to Japan from Manchuria in the winter of 1945 were probably around 100,000. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare later estimated that starvation or malnutrition-related illness accounted for roughly 80 percent of Japanese military deaths in the Philippines, and 50 percent of military fatalities in China. See Akira Fujiwara, Uejinishita Eireitachi [The War Dead Who Starved to Death] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 2001); I am grateful to Michael Cutler for this reference.

2. Kumiko Kakehashi, So Sad to Die in Battle: Based on General Tadamichi Kuribashi's Letters from Iwo Jima (New York: Presidio Press / Ballantine Books, 2007); the original Japanese is Chiruzo Kanashiki: Iõ Jima Sõshikikan Kuribashi Tadamichi (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2005). The battle of Iwo Jima took place too late for wartime Hollywood treatment. Prior to Eastwood, it was most famously depicted in Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne, which was released with strong support from the Marine Corps in 1949, at a time when the Corps was particularly worried about being marginalized in postwar military planning and appropriations. The paradigmatic wartime Hollywood combat film on the struggle for control of islands in the Pacific is Guadalcanal Diary (1943), a formulaic, over-narrated, and enormously popular movie that also has a counterpart print account; the film is based on a book of the same title by the war correspondent Richard Tregaskis. Essentially, Eastwood's two-part reconstruction of Iwo Jima is a repudiation of the simplistic patriotism enshrined in films like Guadalcanal Diary.

3. GIs killing Japanese prisoners is not new to American depictions of the war in the Pacific. Rather, it is simply alien to the "Greatest Generation" mystique that has dominated media representations of the war in the United States since the 1990s. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948), the finest participant novel to come out of the Pacific theater on the U.S. side, includes such a scene and this is recreated in the gritty but now all-but-forgotten 1958 feature film based on this book.

4. Kakehashi, 92–93.

5. See Robert S. Burrell, "Breaking the Cycle of Iwo Jima Mythology: A Strategic Study of Operation Detachment," The Journal of Military History 68.4 (October 2004), 1143–86. Operation Detachment was the codename for the Iwo Jima attack.

6. Kakehashi, xxii–xxv; her book takes its title from this poem.

7. Two classic examples of this are "The Story of Tank Commander Nishizumi" [Nishizumi Senshachō Den, 1940] and "The Most Beautiful" [Ichiban Utsukushiku, 1944]. The latter, about Japanese girls working in a military factory, was directed by Akira Kurosawa. Neither film is easily accessible in English versions, although copies were subtitled for a 1987 film festival sponsored by the Japan Society of New York and subsequently returned to the National Archives.

8. Õoka's novel is available in a translation by Ivan Morris (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1981). Two other "primary" sources on the U.S. side are also deserving of particular note: the 1943 Hollywood film Bataan, and E. B. Sledge's unsparing memoir With the Old Breed, at Peleliu and Okinawa (Oxford University Press; originally published in 1981). Bataan is both a typical beast-in-the-jungle film where the Japanese foe is concerned and a skillfully paced homage to the heroism (rather than fanaticism) of fighting to the last man when it is Americans who do this. Sledge's memoir, written decades after he participated as a Marine in some of the fiercest island fighting in the Pacific, is widely and deservedly regarded as one of the finest and most brutally honest memoirs of a World War II enlisted man.

9. Burrell, "Breaking the Cycle."