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?
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Perhaps that movie deserves an unironic look. Sands of Iwo Jima, released in 1949, doesn't have much to do with the battle, although the final scenes are set on Iwo and incorporate harrowing footage shot by Marine combat cameramen. The movie's real subject is a change in America—a nationwide, 150-million-person shift in values. John Wayne, a Marine sergeant, is tough as nails. John Agar, a private in Wayne's platoon, is sensitive and has been to college. They clash. "I won't insist that [my son] be tough; instead I'll try to make him intelligent," Agar tells Wayne, who is shown to be pretty damn sensitive himself, and more intelligent than you'd think. Then Wayne gets shot, and Agar realizes that sometimes the sensitive, intelligent thing to do is to be tough as nails. Sands of Iwo Jima thus traces U.S. foreign policy from Teddy Roosevelt's Big Stick through Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points to George W. Bush's Whatever It Turns Out to Be.

It's tempting to believe that the Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima weren't as sensitive as the Americans of today. The Japanese fought for the island mostly from underground, hiding in as many as sixteen miles of tunnels and caves. They died in there from flamethrower attacks, satchel-charge explosions, and suffocation. Many Japanese dead remain in these catacombs. Small, scary orifices of the tunnel system open all over the island. Visiting relatives have placed small altars by the holes. Offerings of cigarettes and sake sit beside incense burners. Broken and rusted weapons are arranged gracefully. It's just not possible for a sensitive American peering into the grim apertures to think that every person inside was as miserable and frightened as Bill Moyers would have been.

In fact, the Japanese military men on Iwo Jima—the officers, at least—were arguably more sensitive and intelligent than their American counterparts. The island's commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was an accomplished artist. He was fluent in English. He spent several years as a military attaché in the United States and Canada, writing letters home to his wife and child, the pages filled with humorous cartoons. And he openly opposed going to war with America. The head of naval forces, Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru, wrote poetry in Japanese and classical Chinese and was known for his calligraphy. Lieutenant Colonel Takeichi Nishi was sensitive to opportunities for fun. He was a baron, of the gossip-column-boldface variety, who won a gold medal in horse-jumping in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He partied in Hollywood, had affairs with actresses, and knew Spencer Tracy. All three officers fought to the death.

Across the northern fan of Iwo Jima a volcanic plateau is half eroded into disorderly hills. Mostly their names are nothing but their heights in feet: Hill 382, Hill 362A, and so on. Every hill caused hundreds of people to die; so did every ravine between them. Any clump of rocks providing cover to the enemy was a source of death, as were all open spaces providing no cover to the Marines. About five men to an acre were killed for this island, a corpse in each subdivision house lot. On D-Day Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Shepard Jr., the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, told his men that their objective was "to secure this lousy piece of real estate so we can get the hell off it." William Manchester, in his memoir of the Pacific war, Goodbye, Darkness, described Iwo Jima as "an ugly, smelly glob of cold lava squatting in a surly ocean."

By coincidence, just a month before, I'd been looking at other smelly globs on the far side of the same surly ocean, in the equally isolated Galápagos Islands. My fellow tourists and I ooohed at the black sands, aaahed at the sulphurous volcano vents, and told one another how beautiful the sunset was behind mounts of exactly Suribachi's shape. Iwo Jima does not have the strange life forms found in the Galápagos. But what form of life could be stranger than that which was lived on Iwo Jima from February 19 to March 26, 1945? The Galápagos Islands are internationally protected, to preserve the history of biological evolution. On Iwo Jima the history of moral evolution is preserved. The litter of battle is lying where it was dropped. A seven-story Japanese fortification inside Mount Suribachi has never been re-entered.

After Iwo Jima a few more big World War II battles took place, notably in Berlin and on Okinawa. But it wasn't long before sensitive, intelligent nations evolved beyond such things—even if Hiroshima, one of those cataclysmic events common to evolutionary history, was required to spark the progress. Since then military hordes swarming in all-out attack and military masses falling in desperate defense have been rare. When they do happen, evolutionary throwbacks are involved—Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

People have not gotten better, of course—just more sensitive and, maybe, intelligent. One of the things they are intelligent about is strategy. Iwo Jima is approximately 660 miles from Tokyo. At the beginning of 1945 Americans had Pacific air bases that were within range of the Japanese mainland for bombers but not for fighter escorts. If the Americans could take Iwo Jima, B-29s would fly over Tokyo fully protected. If the Japanese could keep Iwo Jima, B-29s would not. Today 100,000 soldiers aren't thrown into one such small space on a map. There are so many other kinds of space to fight over—outer space, cyberspace, the space between most people's ears.

We gave Iwo Jima back to Japan in 1968. It is now, as it was in February of 1945, a Japanese military base. At sunset when I was there, the Japanese national anthem was played over loudspeakers near the Marines' campground. Every U.S. Marine turned toward the Japanese flag, stood at attention, and saluted. A Marine sergeant major of my generation, who was leading the morale-boosting trip, said under his breath, "My grandfather would be rolling over in his grave if he saw this."

Neither his grandfather nor any other American is rolling over in his grave on Iwo Jima. The American dead had been disinterred by the 1960s and returned to American soil. Their ghosts don't haunt the Iwo Jima battlefield. Nor do the ghosts of the Japanese. I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm Irish enough to be able to tell when none are around. The island is grim. Thoughts of its history are frightening. But Iwo Jima isn't spooky. I found the same opinion in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. At the end of the book the narrator visits a military cemetery. He encounters a black sailor who has volunteered for caretaker duty.

"Isn't it strange," I asked, "for colored men to like work in a cemetery?"

My guide laughed, gently and easily. "Yes! Yes! I knows jes' what yo'-all means," he said. "All dem jokes about ghos's and cullud men. But what yo'-all doan' see," he added quietly, "is dat dey ain' no ghos's up here! ... dey is only heroes."

Pardon, for the sake of the thought, Michener's insensitive language. He was a pre-postmodern man. And so was General Kuribayashi. In his last message to Imperial General Headquarters he said, "Even as a ghost, I wish to be a vanguard of future Japanese operations ..." If so, he's haunting a Toyota factory.

General Kuribayashi sent that message from a cave in a ravine at the northwest corner of Iwo Jima, an area the Americans called "Bloody Gorge." The Marines were plagued by the manifold bolt-holes, peepholes, and gunports concealed in the narrow jumble of rock and brush. I went to Kuribayashi's final redoubt with the sergeant major and a Japanese sergeant major. The sergeant majors are friends. They are authorities on the history of Iwo Jima. Together they gave lectures to the young Marines and guided the hikes around the island.

I couldn't see the entrance to Kuribayashi's cave—even though his descendants had marked it with a statue of a Shinto goddess. The sergeants, on their bellies, led me inside. Kuribayashi was a wide man, five feet nine and 200 pounds. Getting him into his headquarters must have been like getting at the wine when the corkscrew is lost. Thirty feet down, the roof, walls, and floor of the cave flared like a panic attack. We stood in a large, hot, stinking chamber with dead men's belongings all over the ground.

By mid-March, Kuribayashi had only 1,500 men. They were all in one square mile around Bloody Gorge. Tens of thousands of Marines were on the island. The American Pacific command declared Iwo Jima "secure" on March 14. Yet the fighting continued for twelve more days. In the "mopping up" on Iwo Jima, 1,071 Marines were killed. This is more Americans than have died in the conquest and occupation of Iraq, with its 168,000 square miles of territory and its army of half a million soldiers—although there's still time.

Maybe we're coming to the end of the long, dark modern age. Slaughters of unnumbered human beings continue, but not among people who knew Spencer Tracy. Warfare persists, but the scale of battle is returning to something that Hector and Ajax would recognize. Maybe each Jessica Lynch will become a legend. Maybe everybody's death will matter.

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Peace Kills, a survey of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, has just been published.
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