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Book Review: Flags of our Fathers

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War is terrible. It’s an understatement, I know, and something that is almost too obvious to bother saying. Yet the horrors of war can only really be understood, it seems, by those who have been involved in them. In the annals of warfare, few battles have been more brutal than the battle of Iwo Jima. Those who survived this battle were changed forever. James Bradley’s father was one of those survivors. But he was more. He was one of the six men who have been immortalized in what quickly became the world’s most famous and most reproduced photograph. The image of six men raising a flag over Iwo Jima became a national symbol and a rallying point during what was a long and costly war. The six men who raised this flag were lauded as heroes, but the three who walked off the island were reluctant to accept this fame. John Bradley, James’ father, went on to live a long and productive life, but never spoke of the battle. Though his actions in the battle earned him a Navy Cross, he never considered himself a hero.

Hero. In that misunderstood and corrupted word, I think, lay the final reason for John Bradley’s silence.

Today the word “hero” has been diminished, confused with “celebrity.” But in my father’s generation the word meant something.

Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion. However he valued or devalued his own achievement, it did stand as an accomplishment.

The moment that saddled my father with the label of “hero” contained no action worthy of remembering. When he was shown the photo for the first time, he had no idea what he was looking at. He did not recognize himself or any of the others. The raising of that pole was as forgettable as tying the laces of his boots.

Flags of our Fathers traces the lives of the six men who raised that flag over Iwo Jima. It follows them loosely through their early days and zooms in through the days of their military recruitment and training. It zooms in further to moment-by-moment action as they fought in the battle that defined their lives. Three of them would lose their lives before the battle ended. Two others would die younger than would seem right. Only one lived to old age. The fame they found, quite unintentionally, by raising the flag did not bring any of them true or lasting happiness.

This book is, then, a tribute to these six men on one level, but a tribute to all of those who fought in the battle of Iwo Jima on another level. It is the story behind the world’s most famous photographs and a defining piece of American history. But even more so, it is the story of six ordinary men who were called to do extraordinary things, but who found fame through doing something none of them considered at all remarkable.

Flags of our Fathers, while perhaps a little too melodramatic at times, reads almost like a movie script (and, in fact, it has recently been turned into a popular film). It is fast-moving and, quite honestly, just fascinating. It does a great job of mixing the history of events with the history of individuals. It brings out all manner of emotion. It never drags. It is a well-written book and one that is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

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