Telling another side of the story

by David Mcneill

James Bradley wrote the book “Flags of Our Fathers,” on which one of Clint Eastwood’s new films is based. “Flags” tells the true story of what is arguably the most famous photo in warfare, taken as his father and five other marines raised the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima in 1945.

Three of the men never got off the island alive. The rest became reluctant, unhappy heroes, ferried from city to city to whip up morale and sell war bonds. Only his father, sustained by the small-town values eulogized in the book, got through the events relatively unscathed.

Bradley knows Japan well, having studied at Sophia University in Tokyo, and has a degree in East Asian History. In the book, he describes lecturing his dad on the reasons why Japan went to war at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1975.

“I was only too happy to enlighten my father and the assembled family as to the ‘real’ reason we fought Japan in WWII: American insensitivity to Japanese culture and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s severing of their oil lines forced Japan — an industrial beached whale — to attack Pearl Harbor in self-defense.’

He talked to The Japan Times on the telephone from New York.

What was going on that Thanksgiving?

I was in love with a Japanese girlfriend and the country. I changed my views (after studying), but I have no animosity toward the Japanese. I have friends in Japan. My daughter just finished a year teaching in Kyushu. I came to the conclusion that it was the war that made people bad. The enemy is always bad and always treats you bad. Imagine what the many innocent Afghanis feel about America now. War was never something spoken about in my home and I’m much more aware of it now, after studying it. I only saw one side. Now I know that this is what war does; young guys get away from home and they do things they wouldn’t do in their own backyard. “Flags” could be about any army. The militarists got control of the system in Japan. If you have militarists in control of the education system from kindergarten, you can bend people to your will.

Why did you write the book?

I knew I could do “Flags” and that it would do well because it was about the flag-raising, which is the most reproduced photo in the history of photography. I just happened to have had the inside story on the No. 1 photo in history. The book is not so much about Iwo Jima as it is about the [war] bond tour. I just wanted to show my father and these guys as ordinary human beings. My father never talked to reporters, but if they had approached him as an ordinary man and asked him what was it like to be a corpsman or a soldier . . . But they didn’t do that. He was approached as a hero. Guys who went through war came back and were perplexed to find themselves heroes. Once you put people in war away from home, unable to speak the local language and from different cultures, there is a very cruel set of behavior that results.

Did you like the movie?

It’s wonderful and the families of the flag-raisers were happy. Clint Eastwood got it right. It was difficult to watch because I was very close to it; I was thinking about the stories I’d been told.

Do you see any parallels with the current “war on terror?”

I see very fewparallels. The parallel would be if we invaded Japan in 1938. Look at what a democratic experience WWII was for America. There was a war budget so the government had to get money for the war, and to continually make the case for the war. Veterans, politicians and military all stood up there with the media and said ‘We this and (we) that . . . this is what we’re going to do and this is what we need the money for.’ If the public had withdrawn support we would have been in real trouble. [Former President F.D.] Roosevelt was asked many times to declare war in the late 1930s, early ’40s, but he had an antenna to realize that he wasn’t going to go to war without getting the public behind him. I fail to see the comparison today.

There is a perception that the Imperial Army was “crueler” than the U.S. forces.

You know, the biggest single killing in human history was the fire-bombing of Tokyo. Is that crueler than chopping off heads with samurai swords? The moral judgment is easier if you’re killing from a distance. I put in the horrible killings of Japan and the horrible killing of the U.S. and let the reader decide.

Have you read “On Killing (The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society)” by David Grossman? It is the only book about the process of military killing. He talks about how killing with a knife in the gut affects you in a different way to firing a rifle, or a shell over a mountain, or a bomb from a plane. No army has a monopoly on cruelty.

See related stories:
Scriptwriter talks about Japan hit ‘Letters’
Eastwood didn’t idealize Kuribayashi
From knights to pawns
Hollywood waves the flag for Japan
Iwo Jima: ‘A futile battle’ fought without surrender
His Emperor’s reluctant warrior
‘Even the dead were being forced to fight’
War dead said to haunt Iwojima