Last year saw the release of two films directed by Clint Eastwood devoted to the Battle of Iwo Jima. The first, "Flags of Our Fathers," told the story of the US servicemen whose raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi was captured in a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal. Its companion, "Letters from Iwo Jima," tells the story of Iwo Jima from the perspective of its Japanese defenders. Both films garnered critical acclaim, but it was the latter story that most vividly engaged the moviegoing public.
Why was this? Though many would argue (and I would agree) that, from an artistic perspective, "Letters from Iwo Jima" was a stronger film, I would assert that there is a further cause for its broader and more profound impact. Given the state of the world today and the current moment of US foreign affairs, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a more topical and timely film for American audiences. Though "Flags of Our Fathers" was an artful and insightful work, it failed to strike a timely chord on two counts. Firstly, its central insight, that even during a righteous war the US government was not above the use of exploitive propoganda, is not a message that can surprise many Americans today. Secondly, the cinematic audience must sense that the key image of "Flags of Our Fathers" has little relevance to the current conflicts in which the US is embroiled. However cynically US leaders may have manipulated Joe Rosenthal's classic photo, it was nonetheless an unambiguous image of victory. After more than four years the conflict in Iraq has yielded no such image, and the realization is dawning that on the long road ahead one is not likely to materialize.
The relative anachronism of "Flags of Our Fathers" is contrasted by "Letters from Iwo Jima." The latter film's portrayal of the brutally self-annihilating defense by the Japanese Imperial Army resonates very poignantly with the destruction wrought by suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan today. "Letters" presents a mirror in which many of the same sociological forces at work in Iraq today may be seen reflected.
One of the tragic ironies of Iwo Jima is that Joe Rosenthal's famous photo was taken on the fourth day of fighting. That image, of the US flag flying at the highest point of the island, marked certain tactical victory for the US. With Suribachi in American hands there was no way that the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima could prevail, yet the battle went on for another 31 days, the Japanese fighting on suicidally in the face of certain defeat. Almost 7,000 US servicemen died; more than 20,000 of the island's 22,000 Japanese defenders perished.
Why would the Japanese give their lives in such numbers to a lost cause? The answer is not in some deep cultural tradition of conformity or a cult of "bushido." Though patriotism was a factor for some, as "Letters" portrays, these nobler impulses can not be wholly seperated from an acute pathology that had seized Japanese state and society in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. War, revolution, colonialism, industrialization, the Great Depression, the perceived threat of communism, and the general corrosive shock of modernity had impacted Japanese society in such a way as to progressively entrench and institutionalize self-destructive values and imperatives. Japanese leaders and citizens had come to accept, despite some of their nation's most ancient traditions and deeply held values, that torture and terror were essential instruments of state control, that dissent must be quashed, that diplomacy was ineffectual, and that the mass suicidal sacrifice of the nation's youth was preferable to retreat, negotiation, or surrender. Whether or not the individual soldiers who died on Iwo Jima did so out of a sense of higher calling or personal conviction is not ultimately knowable. What can be asserted with relative certainty, however, is that the power structures that had taken hold in their homeland left them very little choice.
In similar fashion to pre-war Japan, chronic corrosive forces have impacted Iraqi society over the course of the twentieth century, and nihilistically self-destructive imperatives have achieved institutional purchase in elements of Iraqi society today. There is virtually no chance that Iraq will ever see a Sunni caliphate or a Shi'ite theocracy ensconced in Baghdad, yet bombings and murders continue on a daily basis in pursuit of these imaginaries. Unlike the Japanese Imperial Army, however, the destructive forces that create mayhem in Iraq cannot be defeated or defused through a sustained campaign of positional warfare.
Joe Rosenthal's photograph was so inspiring to the American public in 1945 because it visually encapsulated a tactical fact- the seizure of the highest point on Iwo Jima signified forward movement along a territorial trajectory that brought the US one step closer to victory. No such strategic logic is operable in Iraq. Coalition forces occupy the whole of Iraqi terrain, yet they are no closer to ending the insurgency today than they were four years ago.
The closest thing to a "Suribachi moment" that the Iraq crisis has yielded was the famous image of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled down in Baghdad in the first weeks of the invasion. We now know all too well that that image did not signify an end to bloodshed and chaos, but a beginning. The great weakness of Saddam Hussein's regime was not best expressed in the image of his statue being pulled down, but in the need for the statue to be erected in the first place. Hussein's regime was pathological, to be sure, but its dissolution has only unleashed even more destructive and entropic forces that pulsed beneath its brutal facade and that now murderously rend the fabric of Iraqi society. These forces cannot be defused by the seizure of critical terrain, nor do institutions exist whose power can be harnessed (like that of the Japanese imperial throne) to bring violence to a halt. In the face of such realities Coalition forces cannot end the current crisis using the conventional tactics and strategies that brought down the Japanese Empire. New institutions must be created and new values established that can displace the destructive forces that hold Iraqi society in thrall. That is a victory that cannot be won on a battlefield by foreign soldiers, but can only be secured through an arduous and painstaking negotiation conducted amongst the Iraqis themselves.