I was fortunate enough last night to see Eastwood's two films on the Battle of Iwo Jima back to back at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY. As an aside to anyone in that area, the Film Center is a fantastic resource for independent, art house, foreign, and classic movies.

It was a very interesting experience watching the two movies back to back. It was great being able to compare the second with the first so fresh in my mind. I enjoyed both movies greatly, and found them both incredibly moving. I found Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective (and is entirely in the Japanese language) to be one of the most powerful anti-war pictures (in my opinion) that I've ever seen. It was also the better movie of the two in my opinion, although the emotional impact of Flags ran much deeper for me.

I suspect that was due to two reasons. The obvious first one is that I'm an American, and we tend to sympathize with our own countrymen. The second is that my deceased grandfather who I was very close to, was a fighter pilot in the European theater of WW II, and the movie brought back memories of him, and imaginings of the incredible sacrifices that must have been required of all during that time.

Anyways back to the movies … I found them to be two very different films for the most part. One thing they do have in common is an examination of the theme that war literally is hell, and that actions on the battlefield are often brutal, and amoral no matter which side claims the moral imperative.

'Flags' which purports to tell the story behind the famous picture of the flag raising over Iwo Jima will inevitably be compared to 'Saving Private Ryan' for its battle sequences. Eastwood manages to capture the randomness and chaos of war vividly in the battle scenes. In particular, the opening assault on the beach near Mount Suribachi (where the flag would eventually be planted) is very impressive.

'Flags' is shot as a series of flashbacks between the battle itself, the present day, and the war bond drive immediately after the battle where the three survivors of the flag raising captured in the photograph are trotted out by the US government to raise money for a near bankrupt US. The movie raises a lot of questions over what it means to be a hero, the reasons behind actions on the battlefield, and their often unthinkable nature, and shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the war propaganda machine. One can't help to have some thoughts of the current situation in Iraq, and Bush's infamous picture on the carrier with 'Mission Accomplished' overhead when watching the spin during the bond drive portions of the film.

Some reviews have complained about the way 'Flags' cuts back and forth between past and present, but it didn't bother me at all. I'm not sure it necessarily adds a great deal to an already powerful film though.

The acting in 'Flags' is generally very good, but I thought the actor who plays one of the flag raisers, a Native American named Ira Hayes, steals the show. His performance is heart wrenching. He is a soldier that has seen and done unthinkable things in the battle. He is literally dragged into the spotlight unwillingly and trotted out as a hero for the flag raising during a series of appearances with the other two survivors during the bond drive.

'Letters' begins in 1944 before the battle, during the early Japanese preparations on the desolate island of Iwo Jima (Sulfur Island in Japanese). Ken Watanabe does an incredible acting job as the general in command of the operation, Tadamichi Kuribayashi.

Kuribayashi had spent time in America before the war, and was against it but was obviously overruled. He knew that the industrial output of the US at the time was unmatched, and would likely be unbeatable. He certainly knew that he and his 20,000 troops were doomed going into battle, but he strategized for maximum impact on the American invasion. He turned a lot of traditional Japanese battle planning on its head, which led to dissension in the ranks of his underlings both before and during the battle, and definitely contributed in some cases to a quicker death for some Japanese units. By the end of the battle, there were around 1000 Japanese left between battle casualties and suicides to avoid surrender.

Watanabe captures a man torn between duty to family and country, and between his love of homeland versus a friendly view towards Americans in general.

The other star of the show is the actor who plays a simple baker with no interest in war, and is forcibly conscripted into the Japanese war effort and sent to Iwo Jima while his pregnant wife watches powerlessly. His performance, at times comedic, always powerful, is very well done.

'Letters' is clearly an anti-war picture. Its emotional impact is different in some ways because you know from the beginning that most if not all of the characters are going to be dead by the end of the film, and they all know it themselves. The island is inhospitable, and hot. There is little food or water, and dysentery everywhere. Yet, they manage to build a series of tunnels and reinforced positions that go so deep, they are eventually immune to American air bombing campaigns. Despite the brilliant strategy of Kuribayashi, the Japanese are far outnumbered, outmatched, and have been essentially abandoned by the Japanese mainland in terms of reinforcements. It is a very difficult movie to watch knowing the ultimate outcome.

It manages to humanize the face of the enemy like few war pictures have done. I would be interested to see the reaction to it in Japan.

Anyways, I would strongly recommend seeing both movies. As movies, they are both very well done, but I feel like 'Letters' is a crowning achievement for Eastwood, while 'Flags' is not quite at that same level. They will definitely give you many things to think about as we begin a new year.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

I don't do war movies any more so I can't comment on the films that Dylan saw. The last uniform, splatter film I saw was "Saving Private Ryan." Compared to the memoirs and documentary photography made by the people who fought on D-Day and in the weeks after the landings, Spielberg's epic was so completely meretricious that it cured me permanently of any curiosity about what contemporary filmmakers have to say about WW II or any other war.

What I would like to question is the presumption that Americans were destined to win the war because of our material superiority or, as Dylan puts it, "the industrial output of the US at the time was unmatched and would likely be unbeatable." In the actual combat against the Japanese army and navy in the Pacific, the weight of numbers and equipment was rarely a decisive factor for the Americans who did the fighting. The reason for this is painfully simple: until the summer of 1945, the Pacific theater always had last priority. Supplies and reinforcements were first sent to Britain and North Africa and then - after 1944 - the European continent. Even Lend Lease to Russia usually had a greater priority than the Pacific theater.

It is only at the very end of the war, with the arrival of the B-29 and the invasion fleet for Okinawa that material superiority became a significant factor; and that was countered to a large degree by the Japanese use of kamikaze tactics. (The U.S. Navy lost more sailors in one month, off the island of Okinawa, than it had in its entire history before that time.)

The triumph of the Americans over the Japanese Empire came far more from intelligence and courage than it did from having more equipment. That eventual victory began with the neutralization of Japanese naval superiority at the Battle of Midway in 1942. 12 bombs destroyed 4 aircraft carriers and - far more important - the elite cadre of Japanese aviators on those ships.

Both Japanese and American scholars agree that, at Midway, the Japanese had more and better aircraft, ships and torpedoes. Their pilots and sailors had greater technical skills and far greater combat experience. Nevertheless, they lost - because of luck and the willingness of the American commanders, Nimitz and Spruance, to go against the odds. Even after the Japanese lost their absolute air superiority at Midway, they still retained the tactical advantages of being on defense. They assumed - not without cause - that the vast distances of the Pacific would make it impossible for the Americans to defeat them. What destroyed that assumption was the success of the American submarine forces in literally choking off supplies of fuel and other materials to the Japanese.

Like the United States Navy, the Army and Marines were able to capture territory for the establishment of forward bases in the mid and Western Pacific, and the submarine forces were able to reach the shipping lanes that converged in the seas around Luzon. The submariners were able to use the information, which the U.S. Naval Intelligence had gathered by successfully breaking the Japanese Naval cipher, to hunt down the Japanese merchant fleet. (The Japanese naval command cooperated by requiring each merchant ship to report to its position daily.)

By 1945 the naval blockade had been so successful that the only targets left were lighters and other coastal vessels; the entire oceangoing Japanese merchant marine - all 5 million tons - had been sunk.

When the battle of Iwo Jima began, the fuel supply to the entire home islands and the military was 10% of what the fuel requirements for the Japanese Navy alone had been in 1942. To suggest that the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima were "abandoned by the Japanese mainland in terms of reinforcements" is to fail utterly to understand how desperate the situation was for the Japanese. It is also to imply - yet again - that the Americans could have been expected to win because of their material advantage. Iwo Jima was - even more than Okinawa - considered part of Japan itself; and Japan's soldiers, sailors and airmen had sworn to protect the homeland at the cost of their lives. Defeating them required a sacrifice equal to their own.

What should also be remembered is the price paid for American submariners: 52 subs and 3,505 officers and crewmen. One last quibble: if, as the filmmakers imply, the U.S. was "near bankrupt" after the Battle of Iwo Jima, it must have been as part of a previously unreported planetary repo out of the pages of Douglas Adams. The near fatal hubris of post-WW II Federal Reserve and Treasury policy had its origins in 1945 - a time when the U.S. dollar was considered not only as good as gold but better. For the next 2 decades everyone in the world would take our checks without ever asking for ID.

Dylan Distasio responds:

Thanks to Stefan for the informative analysis. The above section in particular got me thinking about the validity of the statements in the movie. I happen to have a copy of Milton Friedman's A Monetary History of the US 1867-1960, which is an interesting tome in its own right. I'll quote some of the section in it on WW II deficits below (with the caveat that access to internal Fed documents from 1940 onwards during the war was apparently limited when Friedman was writing his book).

From A Monetary History:

Period of Wartime Deficits, December 1941-January 1946

…By early 1941, however, the deficit had begun to rise sharply. For calendar 1941, cash operating outgo exceeded cash operating income by $10 billion or nearly half of total expenditures. Pearl Harbor brought a sharp intensification of these tendencies. Government expenditures nearly tripled from calendar 1941 to calendar 1942, and rose a further 50 per cent from 1942 to 1943, reaching a peak of $95 billion in 1944. Tax receipts also rose but more slowly and in no greater ratio. As a result, the cash deficit rose to levels without precedent, either in absolute amount or as a percentage of national income; to nearly $40 billion in calendar 1942, over $50 billion in 1943, over $45 billion in 1944, and over $35 billion in 1945—sums averaging nearly 30 per cent of the contemporary net national product.

From the Atlanta Fed's website, here's another tidbit:

The war whipped Reserve Bank operations out of the doldrums of the late 1930s in a spectacular manner. A great deal of the war financing bypassed the old and suddenly cumbersome system of supplying credit through the Federal Reserve System by allowing member banks to rediscount eligible loans. In stark contrast to World War I and its postwar years, rediscounts dwindled and finally disappeared during World War II. The Atlanta Bank's portfolio of earning assets at the end of 1944, for example, consisted almost entirely of Treasury securities distributed from the System's account. There were no discounted loans from member banks. The Reserve Banks became almost exclusively holders of government debt. Commercial banks financed $95 billion of the $380 billion war debt, as the Fed augmented their asset capacity by supplying ample reserves. The money supply more than tripled between June 1940 and the end of 1945, and U.S. government debt increased from one-fourth to two-thirds of all U.S. debt. Thus a large portion of the banking resources of the nation, which had seemed so plentiful and so neglected in 1938, fueled the war effort, and both the activity as well as the assets of the Atlanta Fed soared.

It's also interesting to note that commercial banks were disallowed from most of the bond drives resulting in banks attempting to buy them from individuals on the black market.

Jim Sogi adds:

Stephan, have you read Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (Hardcover) by John W. Dower?

It is an amazing, but quite depressing description of utter devastation to the cities, the economy, the industry, and the people and society of Japan during WWII. The fire bombs in Tokyo and in other industrial cities had an even greater capacity to kill and destroy than even those nuclear bombs, which destroyed over 40-80% of all residences and major industrial areas. Japan lost 1/3 of its net worth, and it suffered a 35% decline in urban living standards, and a 65% decline in rural living standards. It also lost 4/5th of all its ships. Furthermore, the feudal system ended. 4% of the entire population of 74 million was killed. In addition, 1/3 of the population of Okinawa was killed.

MacArthur's occupation force of 245,000 would have had great lessons for Iraq. Bremmer totally destroyed any hope and chance of stabilizing the Iraqi government by dismissing the entire bureaucracy and army in Iraq in three days with ill conceived and poorly planned action. In Japan, they kept the bureaucracy with tremendous efficacy.

It's quite amazing how prosperous they became. Now the Nikkei is 17245, which shows that it doubled in the last three years.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

I share James Sogi's appreciation of Dower's book, Embracing Defeat; it is an extraordinary story. What the people of Japan have accomplished in 60 years is without historical parallel. To understand the extent of the devastation to Japan from the B-25 and B-29 raids at the end of WW II, you would have to take the recent hurricane devastation of Louisiana and Mississippi and multiply it 50-fold. You would then have to kill 3 million people from blast, disease and outright starvation, and leave the country with no fuel or food. Sadaharu Oh, the great baseball player, remembers sheltering with his mother in the canal near their home during one of the firestorms. They considered themselves lucky that the fires from the surrounding homes were not so intense that they raised the water temperature beyond the point of endurance. Others were not so fortunate; their bodies were found boiled to death. Oh was 5 years old at the time.

The blame for the failure of U.S. - Japanese relations in the 20th century has to be placed at the feet of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and their fellow Social Darwinists (authors of that wonderful contribution to American jurisprudence - Plessey v. Ferguson). Their racism was eventually matched and exceeded by the members of the Kodaha and Tosei-Ha, but the Americans went first. In 1914, Japan was a more genuine democracy than the German Empire. The Emperor's political authority was far closer to that of George V than William II. Nevertheless, none of the Western allies - not the Americans, French, British or Italians - thought that their Japanese counterparts had the right to claim equal status at the conference table at Versailles. When that humiliation was followed by the Asian Exclusion Act of 1920 and the ending of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1922, the Socialist and Social Democratic parties in Japan and their policies of "Westernization" were deeply weakened. They might yet have prevailed, but the devastation of the Tokyo Earthquake and Fire created the same loss of faith and desire for a new, "strong" Japan that the Depression did in Germany.

I share James' scorn for the use of a civilian pro-consul instead of a military one in Iraq. Tommy Franks and the U.S. Army would have been a much better choice than Bremer and the State Department. But I think the historical analogy with Vietnam is the more appropriate one with regard to whether the Baathist bureaucracy and military in Iraq should have been left in place. In 1945 the Japanese forces in Indo-China had removed the French from all positions of military and civil authority just as the Germans had taken over in Italy in 1944. Roosevelt had wanted to require the Japanese forces there to formally surrender, as the Germans did in Italy; but he was persuaded to allow the Japanese to continue to govern the country until the French colonial authority could be reestablished. In the eyes of the Vietnamese, the French never overcame the double shame of defeat, followed by outright collaboration with a hated enemy. If the U.S. forces had allowed the Baathists to remain in power, the situation in Iraq would have been a second Indo-China War. I would offer instead the Philippines after the Spanish-American War as a historical comparison. The Spanish authorities were clearly discredited. Rather than leave them in place, the Americans established a joint military and civil authority. To T. Roosevelt's deep frustration, William Howard Taft, who was the pro-consul, committed the United States to granting the country political independence. (One of Roosevelt's strongest motivations for his later 3rd party run for President as a "Bull Moose" was his disdain for Taft's willingness to disestablish the fledging American Empire. He also thought Taft's fondness for baseball and his willingness to be seen throwing out the first pitch at an opening game was "common".) The U.S. Army and the Marines had to battle both the Moro and the Aguinaldo insurgents for nearly a decade after Dewey's dramatic success in Manila Bay. The chapters of General Pershing's memoirs dealing with his negotiations with village chiefs in the Philippine islands are being written again by successor American officers in the field in Afghanistan and the Western Provinces today.

From Roger Arnold: 

 I finally watched Flags of Our Fathers on Saturday at home with my 13-year-old daughter. As the movie was playing I was explaining the background of the story and of the men's lives to her. I knew some of the story because I was a Marine. The non-public parts of the story were told to me by James Bradley, even before he wrote the book. He had a passion for this story and for getting it told. This wasn't just a movie, made from a book, authored by a chop-shop writer.

Jim willed this movie into existence. Without his singular determination to tell the story it would have been lost to history. And that story too is worth hearing. As far as I can tell the movie relates the story pretty much as Jim told it to me 10 years ago, especially as pertains to Ira.

There were some peculiarities and omissions that raise questions for me. But as they pertain to private issues that readers and viewers would otherwise not be aware of, I will not relate them here.


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