FYI: It didn't win Clint Eastwood much at the Oscars - what was so important about Iwo Jima anyway?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am

Iwo Jima is a barren, volcanic island dominated by the towering Mount Suribachi and located about 1,000km south of Tokyo. In 1945, it was described by US troops as 'seven square miles of useless real estate' but its strategic importance knew no bounds. These days, it is uninhabited and used solely as a sulphur mine (Iwojima in Japanese means 'sulphur island'), a shrine to the dead and the backdrop to award-winning films.

Its unimpressive appearance belies the island's importance in the US psyche. For Americans, it represents an ideal - one of sacrifice (5,000 marines died taking it, with 20,000 injured) for a greater good (the triumph of democracy and the defeat of Japanese imperialism). US troops faced 22,000 Japanese soldiers entrenched in caves and tunnels who would fight to the death. They were commanded by one of Japan's more able tacticians, General Kuribayashi, yet some 21,000 Japanese died. Only about 1,000 survived, mostly Korean labourers unwilling to die for an alien emperor.

The battle took on mythical proportions thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Joe Rosenthal's snap of six servicemen raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. It is perhaps history's most reproduced snapshot. The island has now been further etched on our memories courtesy of Eastwood's recent films, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The latter, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and the Academy Award for best achievement in sound editing, takes the Japanese perspective, offering a little sympathy to the dogged defenders.

So why the battle? Wasn't the war in the Pacific nearly over by February 1945? Iwo Jima was part of the end-game, one of the few remaining Allied stepping stones to Japan proper. It had to be taken for its airfields, from which kamikaze attacks were launched on US shipping, and because it was the 'eye of Japan', an early warning station to intercept the B-29 bombers firebombing the mainland from the Mariana Islands. If secured, the US would have an emergency landing strip for damaged bombers heading to base, saving many lives. After victory, 2,000 planes made emergency stops there, perhaps saving 20,000 lives.

Iwo Jima is not without controversy, not least the plot of Eastwood's first film, which focuses on the raising of the flag by six ordinary men. Three didn't survive the battle (one died by friendly fire) but three lived - John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes. The film charts what happened to these reluctant heroes.

Many Americans believe the flag was raised as a sign of victory: it wasn't. It was erected on the fifth day of a 35-day battle. It should be noted that Rosenthal's picture immortalised the raising of a second flag. The first was too small to see on the beaches and a US general, keen to have a memento, ordered a larger flag be raised. Rosenthal captured the second flag-raising live - he did not, as conspiracy theory posits, restage the moment.

US president Roosevelt spotted the photograph's symbolic power and recalled the survivors to publicise a war-bonds drive. Bradley's grandson, James, wrote a book about the battle, the flag-raising and the men involved, which Eastwood picked up, using his film to show the exploitation of soldiers as propaganda tools and the impact of war on those who fight: Bradley spoke of the moment only once; Hayes died a bitter alcoholic.

The film was a brave move by Eastwood, considering what is unfolding in another 'justifiable' war in Iraq. As a CNN reviewer put it: 'It also draws parallels to the Iraq war, the lies being perpetrated in the name of blind patriotism, and a fierce attack on wartime hypocrisy and profiteering.' Ring any bells?