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The Atlantic Monthly | June 2004
Pursuits & Retreats

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?
by P. J. O'Rourke
s 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 in the daytime and 100 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.

he 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.

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.

cross 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.

eneral 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.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

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.

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2004; Sulfur Island; Volume 293, No. 5; 137-142.