Travel June 2004

Sulfur Island

Everyone recognizes the image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. But what do you know about the place we were actually fighting for?

As a memorial to the astonishing war slaughter of the modern age, I propose the island of Iwo Jima—for its ugliness, its uselessness, and its remoteness from all things of concern to the postmodern era.

Iwo Jima can be visited only with military permission and, usually, only by military transport. A comfortless C-130 Hercules propeller craft flies from Okinawa over more than 700 miles of blank Pacific, moving as slowly as the planes of Iwo's battle days. The island is five miles long, running northeast from a neck of sand at the base of the Mount Suribachi volcanic cone and spreading to a width of two and a half miles in the shape of a paint spill, with Mount Suribachi (really a 550-foot hill) as the can of paint. The colors are gray, gray-green, brown, and black—the hues of camouflage. From the air Iwo Jima looks as small as it is, a reminder of the insignificance of the great tactical objectives of war. The landscape at Ypres is banal. The beaches at Normandy are not as nice as those in East Hampton. From the top of Cemetery Ridge, at Gettysburg, the prospect is less awe-inspiring than the view from many interstate rest stops. And Iwo Jima protrudes unimpressively from an oceanic reminder of the insignificance of everything.

I went to Iwo Jima with a director and a cameraman. We were working on a one-hour cable-television documentary about the battle. From February 19 to March 26 of 1945, 6,821 Americans and about 20,000 Japanese were killed in the fight for the island. How could a one-hour anything—prayer, symphony, let alone cable-television documentary —do justice to that? The director, the cameraman, and I had worried about it the night before in an Okinawa bar. We decided that 26,821 men would have told us to knock off the chickenshit worrying and drink.

The three of us were guests on a trip that is offered periodically to young enlisted Marines in recognition of exemplary performance and attitude. The journey is spoken of as a "morale booster." It was July. Iwo Jima is almost on the Tropic of Cancer, parboiled by the North Equatorial Current. In the sun its rocks become charcoal-colored briquettes in a hibachi. The temperature was 100 degrees in the daytime and 100 degrees at night. The humidity was 100 percent. When there was wind, it was an eructation. The volcanic vents on Iwo Jima are still active. The name means "Sulfur Island" in Japanese. The visiting Marines were not allowed to smoke or swim or explore on their own. They slept on the ground. Reveille was at 5:00 A.M. They were led on hikes all day, covering the island's eight square miles. I was never in the military, but if this is what boosts morale, I want nothing to do with what causes morale to deteriorate.

However, young men and women do not join the Marines to get comfortable. And going to Iwo Jima is a way for new Marines to imbue themselves with the spirit of the Corps. The battle for the island was fought by what was at that time the largest force of Marines ever assembled. The casualties were shocking. More than a third of the approximately 72,000 Marines who landed on Iwo Jima were killed or wounded. The bravery, too, was shocking. Of the 353 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded during World War II, twenty-seven were given for heroism on Iwo Jima, thirteen of them posthumously.

Iwo became a byword for fighting while it was still being fought. The U.S. military had hoped the island could be taken in two weeks. The battle lasted thirty-six days. Japanese resistance was expected to be stubborn. It was ferocious. Only 1,083 of the approximately 21,000 Japanese defenders surrendered or were taken prisoner. The landing on Iwo Jima occurred as the war in Europe was ending. The Allies were on the Rhine. Warsaw had fallen. Attention turned to the Pacific theater. The Secretary of the Navy himself, James V. Forrestal, was on the beach at Iwo Jima on D-Day (as the day of the landing was called) plus four. When Secretary Forrestal saw the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, he said, "This means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years."

And there is that flag-raising. The Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's shot is the best-known image of combat in World War II—perhaps the best-known image of combat in history. The word "icon," dull with use, can be applied precisely to the picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. Rendered in bronze at the Marine Corps War Memorial, with men thirty-two feet tall, the flag-raising is more impressive than the mountain where it happened.

To the young—very young—Marines who were looking at that mountain when I was there, the flag-raising must seem to have happened a full-Secretary-Forrestal-500 years ago. For someone born in 1984, the war between Japan and the United States feels almost as distant in time as the war between Japan and Czarist Russia does for me. During that long meander of chronology Iwo Jima acquired a slight, untoward comic tinge. There were numerous parodic representations of the monument, the photo, the pose. There were Johnny Carson's "Mount Suribachi" tag lines. There was a period of years when every drunk of a certain age who'd ever been a Marine claimed to have fought at Iwo, my uncle Mike included. (Uncle Mike's World War II Marine Corps stint was spent in a stateside hospital with an infected toe.) John Wayne didn't fight there either, but he gave a clumsy imitation of doing so in Sands of Iwo Jima. When televisions became common, that movie appeared on them constantly. The photograph itself showed not the first American flag atop Suribachi but, rather, its larger replacement. It is an image of combat in which no combat is involved. One or two too many men are trying to shove an iron pipe into a pile of rocks. And the flag-raising was not a signal of victory. It happened on the fifth day of the invasion, when most of the fighting and dying were yet to come.

The young visiting Marines woke up on their first morning on Iwo Jima and hiked about four miles from their campground to the top of Suribachi. They did it so quickly that they were there for sunrise, at 5:45. They hung their dog tags at Suribachi's peak, on a bas-relief of the flag-raising mounted on a granite plinth. The monument is decorated with hundreds of dog tags, many bearing dates of birth more recent than my last dentist appointment. But if there was anything that struck the young Marines as antique or absurd about this battlefield, they didn't show it. Some of them will be sent to deal with the antique absurdities of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The director, the cameraman, and I—antiques in our forties and fifties —proceeded on our own absurd errand. Bearing camera, tripod, battery packs, tapes, and so forth, we trudged through a satire of tropical paradise. The beaches were black, not white. The sea looked like agitated dishwater. The sky was cloudless, but dull with heat haze. Palm trees did not sway, nor did bougainvillaea flower in the botanically anonymous uninterrupted scrub. The weather didn't warm the blood, it broiled the bald spot and baked the feet. In place of grass shacks and tiki huts were the ruins of Japanese pillboxes and gun emplacements.

The three of us carried our stuff across the island and up Suribachi and down. We didn't faint in the heat or get too dizzy and sick. Iwo Jima is not a place, we complained to one another, where you feel you're allowed to complain. We went out into the deep, steep-pitched, sucking sand of the D-Day landing beaches. Thirty thousand men were put ashore that morning in a space hardly adequate for a UCLA pan-Hellenic luau. Tanks, amphibious vehicles, and Marines themselves sank to immobility. On D-Day 2,420 Americans were killed or wounded.

Combat now is a less crowded affair and more dependent on sophisticated electronic equipment. We were lugging some. It didn't compare in heft to what a Marine carried on an amphibious landing. In 1945 one man's weapons, ammunition, and gear might have weighed as much as 122 pounds. Killing is not as physical as it once was. It's time for young, hopeful people to be relieved of fighting duties. War should be fought by the middle-aged men who are the ones who decide that war should be fought anyway. We don't have our whole lives in front of us. We're already staring down the barrel of heart disease and SEC investigations. Being wrenched from home, family, and job would not be that wrenching for many of us. We wouldn't need these morale-boosting trips.

The idea that we should be doing the fighting and they should be having the fun didn't seem to occur to the young Marines. They had brought pocketfuls of small zip-lock bags and were filling these with the sands of Iwo Jima.

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