Iwo Jima’s eternal image

One of the most famous photographs of the 20th century came out of the brutal battle for Iwo Jima 60 years ago this week. But it was not the scene that most people believe it was. The powerful image of Marines planting an American flag into the scorched and scarred summit of Mt. Suribachi was splashed across front pages all over the United States. The men in the picture became instant heroes and the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, won the Pulitzer Prize. In the 60 years since Rosenthal’s camera froze that scene, the image has inspired statues, stamps, and become an icon for the entire US military.

In reality, however, the Rosenthal photograph shows the second flag that was raised on Mt. Suribachi. The first flag raising was performed much earlier in the day by different soldiers who never enjoyed the public acclaim given to the soldiers in the famous photograph. The first flag raising was photographed too, but not nearly as dramatically as the second and it was not immediately published. Virtually everyone who sees Rosenthal’s photo, even today, assumes it was the first flag-raising after a long, hard fight up that mountain. But it was not.

While this was no conspiracy then and no scandal now, it certainly demonstrates the ability of a photograph to transcend reality. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes the whole story is longer than a thousand words.

The rapid and enduring fame of Rosenthal’s photograph also reveals the human tendency to latch onto the comfortable and turn away from the disturbing, even if the latter is closer to reality.

The lasting image to emerge from that battle should not have been men gripping a flag pole with no death only glory within the frame. A more fitting eternal photograph from Iwo Jima would reveal the worst of war, men killing and men dying.