Bill of Rights Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 393, November 12, 2006

"Knowin' history's the KEY t'keepin' a FREE country."—Lucy Kropotkin


What Flags of Our Fathers Forgot
by Scott Kauzlarich

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

I went to see Flags of our Fathers this weekend and I was expecting a pro-war movie, a Saving Private Ryan in the Pacific type of deal. I'm happy to report that this was not the case. Self-sacrifice was not glamorized; there was no glorious victory. The film was supposedly about the battle of Iwo Jima but in fact, little attention was paid to the battle or its outcome except as the setting for the famous flag-raising picture. The movie spent most of its time recounting the manipulation of the flag-raising soldiers and their families by the government in order to sell bonds. The tone of Flags is decidedly anti-war and anti-state, which is not surprising since it was directed by Clint Eastwood, a self-described libertarian.

The real tragedy of Iwo Jima, however, is that the battle was fought at all. Following their victory in the Marianas in June 1944, US forces could have taken Iwo Jima without a fight. Its strategic value was well-known and the tiny Japanese force (mostly pilots) assumed that they would be assaulted and captured. To the surprise of the Japanese, the Americans turned southeast towards the Philippines, fulfilling Douglass MacArthur's promise to return there. In his 1957 book Samurai, Japanese pilot Saburo Sakai wrote of his experiences at Iwo:

    It was obvious to us all that we could offer only token resistance, that within an hour or two after a landing the Americans would control Iwo. . . .Who among us would have dared to prophesy that the Americans would throw away their priceless opportunity to take the island with minimum casualties on their side?

Iwo was spared in part because of the ambitions of MacArthur. While others advocated continuing the direct drive on Japan, MacArthur pushed for a recapture of the Philippines and got his way. Japan would have to wait. No doubt the thought of winning the war without first liberating the Philippines kept MacArthur up at night. In the meantime, the Japanese reinforced Iwo with 20,000 troops and dug in. According to Sakai, Japanese military leaders believed the war would have ended sooner if the US had not waited so long to attack Iwo Jima:

    The Philippines invasion was a vast and costly operation, highly successful for the Americans, but an insignificant campaign which did little to hasten the defeat which was already in sight.

With Iwo turned into a fortress, the Marines called for a ten-day bombing of the island to soften it up. Instead the Navy gave them three, one of which was severely hampered by weather. Despite seeing how strong the remaining defenses were, the Marines were ordered ashore with predictable results.

Having ignored the island when it was unoccupied, and choosing neither to "island-hop" past it or to effectively reduce its defenses, the battle on Iwo was horrific. Over 26,000 Americans were killed and wounded as they assaulted an island whose defenses were as intact as in any battle of the Pacific war.

Seeking a rationale for the bloodshed on Iwo Jima, historians have pointed to the tremendous savings of life to American aircrews that used Iwo as an emergency landing strip during bombing runs over Japan. (In the final scene of Flags, Eastwood also bows to this by showing a smoking B-29 landing on Iwo.) However, the suggestion that the cost of Iwo was repaid by sparing the lives of thousands of bomber crews is a dubious one.

For starters, the claim is made in hindsight. Yes, the island and its runway had strategic value -- but not 26,000 lives worth of value. It is implausible to suggest that the Joint Chiefs were willing to expend that much on an emergency airstrip. Furthermore, had the fighting in the Pacific continued on and included an invasion of Japan, wrecking three Marine divisions on Iwo would have been exceedingly foolish.

The reasoning falters even more when we realize that the number of airmen "saved" by Iwo has been exaggerated. A figure of 20,000 is arrived at by taking the number of landings on Iwo and multiplying it by the number of people in each plane. However, some of the planes that choose to land on Iwo would have made it back to the Marianas and some that ditched in the ocean would have been rescued. To assume that every plane that landed on Iwo would have been lost if we didn't take the island is inaccurate and serves mainly to conceal the blunders of the operation.

The same can be said for arguments that Iwo provided a land base for fighter escorts into Japan. Considering the quality of Japanese pilots and aircraft in 1945, and with B-29s increasingly raiding at night, this argument is also a thin justification for the losses on Iwo.

In the end, the story of Iwo Jima is of a battle fought for very little reason at very great cost.

Scott Kauzlarich teaches history and government at Ellsworth College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. He can be contacted at


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