Clint Eastwood has turned out a pair of outstanding movies based on stories about Iwo Jima, the scene of an internecine battle between U.S. and Japanese forces during the Pacific War.
The first movie, “Flags of Our Fathers,” tells the story of three U.S. soldiers who raised a U.S. flag on the island, happened to be photographed, and went on to become unwilling war heroes. To the chagrin of the soldiers, the U.S. government used them to promote the sale of government war bonds. The movie also shows a discriminatory attitude held by white soldiers toward their Native American comrade who became a hero, focusing on injustices of the state and society rather than the war itself.
The second movie, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” mostly depicts the battle on the island, especially the savagery and madness of the war. Unlike the first movie that featured Americans, it focuses on Japanese, and shows that among the Japanese Army personnel there was a compassionate and intelligent commander and a kind officer who ordered care for wounded U.S. soldiers.
Also shown is a brutal Japanese noncommissioned officer pummeling his men and a Japanese officer shooting to death Japanese soldiers who were about to surrender. Unlike past U.S. war movies, this film shows both the good and bad sides of the Japanese Army.
I was horrified by a scene in which U.S. military personnel casually shot and killed two Japanese soldiers who had surrendered, as if to get rid of a nuisance. Eastwood deserves praise for dramatizing such behavior.
The postwar International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials) ignored defense counsel’s argument that the Allied Powers’ violations of international law, including the atomic bombings of Japan, should be examined. This left the door open for criticism that the trials were unfair because they merely carried out “victors’ justice.” Eastwood has exposed some cruelties on which the Tokyo Trials failed to pass judgment.
I recently interviewed Tomisaburo Nakamata, the former Japanese Navy lieutenant who was sentenced to death in the Manila trials of Class-B and -C war criminals and then released eight years after the war ended. He said if it had not been for commanders’ orders “Do not get captured alive by enemy forces,” tens of thousands of Japanese military personnel would have survived on the Philippine front. He said some soldiers chose to starve to death in the mountains after being told that U.S. forces would kill prisoners of war.
Ruthless orders from their leaders no doubt contributed to Japanese soldiers’ desperate resistance on Iwo Jima, shown in “Letters.”
I was shocked by an early scene in “Flags” in which a U.S. soldier is abandoned after accidentally falling overboard from a ship carrying his comrades to a battlefield. War breeds inhuman acts, forcing cruelty on any country and people.
In the Iwo Jima battle, 21,000 Japanese and 7,000 U.S. military personnel are said to have perished. The remains of 13,000 Japanese personnel remain uncollected. The two movies serve as requiems for the fallen soldiers.
In the Pacific War, 3 million Japanese died. Even today, war-inflicted mental and physical scars trouble many survivors, including air raid victims; those orphaned in China, left behind in the Philippines or detained in Siberia; as well as ethnic Koreans who were tried as Class-B- and -C war criminals.
Even convicted war criminals became eligible for military pensions soon after Japan signed the peace treaty with the Allied Powers, if they were Japanese nationals. But some people got no relief because they were socially weak and could not raise their voices. They continue a long battle for compensation, an apology from the government and, in some cases, confirmation of their Japanese nationality.
Even though postwar problems remain unsettled, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to overhaul Japan’s postwar system based on peace and democracy. On Dec. 15, the Diet enacted the revised Fundamental Law of Education and the law to elevate the Defense Agency to a ministry.
The revised education law calls for the inculcation of “love for our homeland and native place,” which I fear could be used to revive nationalistic education. The law is reminiscent of the prewar Imperial script on education, in which “loyalty and patriotism” was the key phrase that drove young Japanese to war.
The elevation of the Defense Agency to a ministry could touch off moves for Japan to focus more on military affairs rather than on economic policy. The Self-Defense Forces, if freed from past policy restraints on military activities, could abandon basic principles such as the three-point nonnuclear policy — not possessing, not manufacturing and not permitting the entry of nuclear weapons in Japanese territory — the defense-only military posture and civilian control of the SDF.
Abe has indicated he wants a review of the SDF’s right to collective defense, which past Japanese administrations have interpreted as constitutionally banned. Some influential lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, are openly talking about the possibility of Japan’s going nuclear. Older generations may already have started hearing military boots marching in cadence.
U.S. postwar occupation authorities promoted the demilitarization and democratization of Japan, so it is strange that few U.S. opinion leaders have expressed alarm over recent moves by the Japanese government and the Liberal Democratic Party. U.S. authorities don’t seem to care what happens in Japan as long as they can keep their military installations here.
We need to give serious consideration to the “no war” message in the two Iwo Jima movies.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.