NEW YORK -- Isn't the Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood's film "Letters From Iwo Jima" idealized? That was a question my poet friend Geoffrey O'Brien asked on New Year's Eve. A dedicated student of film, O'Brien had remembered a poem about the general that I translated three decades ago. Written in the fury of war, the poem might present Kuribayashi as a die-hard samurai warrior.

When asked the question, I hadn't seen the movie and couldn't answer. Now that I've seen it, twice, and read collections of Kuribayashi's letters to his family, along with his biographies, my answer is: probably not. His letters, especially, do not appear to be those of a man who led 22,000 soldiers to death with bravado.

Kuribayashi, born in 1891, toured the United States as a cavalry officer for two years from March 1928 to May 1930. During this time, he chose to address letters home to his infant son Taro and adorn them with drawings. He drew not just himself in his daily activities, but also neighborhood kids on tricycles, a 4-year-old girl named Patsy who frequented his apartment, himself traveling by the Chevrolet K he bought, and so on.