Iwo Jima: ‘A futile battle’ fought without surrender


August 15 is the 61st anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation speech that ended World War II. Yet even in a world assailed ever since with ghastly images of conflicts, few rank with the ferocity both sides showed in the battle for a remote Pacific islet in the spring of 1945. That islet’s name is Iwo Jima; it was Japan’s first ‘home’ island to fall.

After years of clumsy, caricatured and often racist portrayals of Japan, Hollywood has recently been struggling to make amends.

First up was Tom Cruise’s disillusioned American Civil War vet seduced by the Bushido code of honor in 2003’s “The Last Samurai.” Then came last year’s photogenic Stephen Spielberg-produced “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which traded heavily on Oriental cliches. Now, this year will see the release of Clint Eastwood’s sure-fire double-feature blockbuster on the Battle of Iwo Jima.

An isolated speck of volcanic rock in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, Iwo Jima — meaning Sulfur Island — was the site of one of the most brutal battles in the known history of warfare.

The teardrop-shaped, 22.4-sq.-km islet — a third the size of Manhattan — was blasted almost flat, becoming what one veteran called a “sulfurous, crater-filled hellhole” in five weeks of fighting in February and March 1945. When the guns fell silent, nearly 7,000 Allied troops were dead and just 1,080 of the 21,800 Japanese defenders had been taken alive.

The black sands of Iwo Jima passed into military legend, immortalized in a photograph by Joe Rosenthal showing a group of U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on its highest point, Mount Suribachi, on Feb. 23, 1945. Even after six subsequent decades of fighting in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, the Battle of Iwo Jima remains the U.S. Marine Corps’ most costly: nearly a third of all Marines killed in World War II died there.

The U.S. forces at least had their medals and their glory — postage stamps bearing the flag-raising image and jingoistic heroism thanks to the likes of the 1949 box-office movie “Sands of Iwo Jima” starring all-American John Wayne.

Returning Japanese veterans were treated like pariahs, blamed by proxy for the madness that had consumed their country and stigmatized by rumors of atrocities wherever they fought. Like America’s Vietnam vets, ex-soldiers quickly learned that nobody wanted to hear about their experiences. So, they simply bowed their heads, rejoined civilian life and tried to ignore their nightmares.

However, for the tragic figure who led the Japanese defense, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, there were to be no such problems of readjustment. A devoted and cultivated family man, much traveled and fluent in English, his doomed leadership was respected by friend and foe alike. His body, though, is one of thousands never found, and for years his achievements, too, languished in historical obscurity.

But Kuribayashi’s fate was far from unusual as national reflection was quickly replaced by the collective amnesia that has gripped Japan since. For most postwar Japanese, knowledge of Iwo Jima, like Saipan, Okinawa and the horrific 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, came from curt descriptions in high-school textbooks, their genesis reduced to the simple mantra: War is bad.

On the political right, however, Iwo Jima has been since 1945 a “sacred place,” in the words of Tokyo’s nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara. Going there and to other former battlefields to recover the remains of soldiers became a rite of passage for a string of nationalist politicians. But Iwo Jima never penetrated the collective Japanese consciousness. In fact, few young Japanese know the island exists.

Since 1968, when the United States handed Iwo Jima back to Japan, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have maintained a small garrison there. They share the barren rocky terrain with the remains of some 10,000 Japanese soldiers, many still buried deep in sweltering underground caves and bunkers. There is no memorial, and an annual U.S.-Japan commemorative ceremony since 1985 attracts little media attention back on the mainland so many died in a vain effort to protect.

The mostly older Japanese who have visited the island — now accessible only by military craft — speak of an almost tangible spiritual presence. SDF soldiers who transport them there say some travel huge distances only to find themselves unable to step ashore after being overcome with emotion, or with the sense that they are walking among ghosts.

Nobuto Hosaka, a Social Democratic Party lawmaker who is suing the government to continue searching for remains, says the island is a symbol of a war that should never be repeated or forgotten. “Iwo Jim typifies how the people responsible for the war used up precious human lives so casually. The soldiers were told: ‘Before you die, kill as many Americans as you can, even though you know you’re going to lose.’ There is nothing honorable about Iwo Jima — it was a futile battle.”

How futile? As the Japanese commander knew, the numerical and material superiority of the U.S. side ensured they would eventually triumph. Even as his motley army of teenagers, non-standard soldiers and Korean conscripts was fighting to the last ragged man, the rationale for defending the island — protecting the mainland from U.S. bombers — was evaporating in clouds of acrid gasoline-stinking fumes. The Americans had abandoned the last rules of warfare against civilians and had already started the carpet-bombing of 56 Japanese cities that would eventually kill about 500,000 people. At best, Kuribayashi could hope to delay this holocaust by days or weeks.

In recent years, Japan has begun a reappraisal of the war era that is slowly chipping away at the architecture of the constitutionally pacifist state and souring relations with its Asian neighbors. China and the Koreas accuse Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of adding a patina of soft nationalism to Japan’s national amnesia.

Like others in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, lawmaker Yoshitaka Shindo, the grandson of Gen. Kuribayashi, hopes this reappraisal will finally encourage young Japanese to take pride in the achievements of their forebears. “My grandfather knew America well and thought that if we inflicted enough losses, the U.S. might halt its attack. It was an extremely important strategy and we’re proud of it. We lost, but the soldiers fought with all their strength, and in that sense Iwo Jima is of enormous significance.”

“Iwo Jima helps us remember the importance of peace and not going to war again. Twenty thousand Japanese men died on that island, 1,000 came home — but not one surrendered. All the survivors were unconscious, or hurt so badly that they were captured. It’s a tragic place. For Japan, it symbolizes the importance of peace, and it is a place where the spirits of the dead sleep.”

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