AP Photo by Joe Rosenthal
Last week a day in photojournalistic infamy slipped across the horizon of my consciousness.
February 23, 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the raising of the flags(s) on the island of Iwo Jima following one of the most difficult battles of WWII in the South Pacific.
Recently, Rosenthal's picture was overlaid with a film frame made by Marine cinematographer Sgt. Bill Genaust who was standing next to the celebrated Associated Press photographer at the time. The result of the juxtaposition is a haunting 3-D rendering of the scene that can be viewed Online with a standard pair of 3- D glasses courtesy of the Tampa Tribune's Dimensions of Valor site.
In 1999, I completed a master's thesis on the rhetorical power of images of war. Rosenthal's image was among three pictures analyzed for the study. Today, as I am reminded of the 60th anniversary of this conflict, I look back now on my writing for a sobering and grounding perspective on what this picture means to me.
The image made by Rosenthal on Iwo Jima consolidated the emotional and political consciousness of a nation at a time when it needed a unifying ideological force to continue its involvement in the war. The image has evolved into a visual metaphor for such phrases as "The Good War", "common cause" or "valor under fire." Today, the rhetorical impact of the Iwo Jima image is embedded in our national consciousness. The impact of this image, for me, stands-in place of the realities of war. The image symbolically transcends the boundaries of time and space to underscore the human costs of the conflict. In the case of Iwo Jima, a battle that took the lives of thousands of Japanese and Americans combatants (Roeder, 1993; Eiler, 1995).
The mythological transcendence of the Iwo image is due in large part to the highly organized machinery of a war propaganda effort that propelled it into the spotlight of public consciousness at the time. Capturing the imagination of millions, the scene was replicated in popular culture: On postage stamps, "Zippo" lighters and even advertisements for Spam (the meat product). For Marling and Wetenhall (1991), the image was so popular that it was used to sell more than $24 billion in war bonds by its presence in more than 16,000 movie theaters, 15,000 banks, 200,000 factories, 30,000 railroad stations and on 5,000 billboards.
For Lance Bertelsen (1989), Rosenthal's photograph "fulfills our hope that flawed men in horrible circumstances can achieve a perfect figuration of traditional heroism--that Life indeed can surpass Art."
Can one image assert so much power over the moral imagination of a nation? Movies were made about it, songs were sung over it, and the image lives on in memory to symbolize the deeds of war.
What is seldom remembered about the image is that it appeared against a backdrop of isolationist tendencies following WWI, poor morale in the US labor sector producing war materiel, rising racial tensions, as well as economic stagnation after the depression. Rosenthal's image represented a visual panacea for the war effort -- a pictorial remedy designed to instill hope and patriotism to the nation.
The Iwo Jima image, in my mind, is impacting because it has become a dichotomization between good and evil, right and wrong, hero and coward. Rosenthal's image embodies American idealism by telling and retelling a story of epic proportions.
I do not remember the "Good War" or the tremendous sacrifice made by millions. This war -- "The Good War" was the war of my grandparents and parents. Today, I can only say that I live in the shadow of such dark times and suffering through Rosenthal's visual reportage.
I come from a generation raised during a time of the so-called "Dirty Little War" -- the Viet Nam Conflict. The iconic imagery of my youth conjures up a different reality than what was depicted on Iwo Jima. The iconic images of my generation show the consequences of war, such as the street execution of a prisoner and the bombing of a little girl's village. The master metaphors engendered by Rosenthal's image -- metaphors drenched in the societal expectations and obligations of such ideals as valor, liberty, unison. patriotism and sacrifice -- were replaced by the master metaphors of the "Dirty War" and the flat visual rhetoric of "carpet bombings", "body bags", "My Lai", and "Kent State."
Unlike the rhetoric of "The Good War" that distillates in the Rosenthal's image, the icons of the "Dirty War" some 25 years later, served as a moral compass for guiding me to comprehend the unpleasant truths about war. I come from a generation that was taught to question the authenticity of the image as a persuasive determinant summing up the government's war effort. I was raised and encouraged to question images as simply neutral representations that mirror reality. This, I think, is what the icons of war do for us if we reflect long enough on them. These images remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice that washes ashore with the tide of each passing generation. The present generation, with its present war, must now come to terms with its own iconic images. Do the pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison or a Marine's tired face come to mind?
Sources and Links
Bertelsen, Lance. "Icons on Iwo." Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 22. Spring 1989.
Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London:Routledge. 1977.
Edwards, Janis and Carol Winkler. "Representative Forms and the Visual Ideograph: The Iwo Jima Image in Editorial Cartoons." Quarterly Journal of Speech. August 1997: 289-310.
Eiler, Dorothea. "Flags on Iwo: The True Picture." Military History. February 1995.
Marling, Karal Ann and John Wetenhall. Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories and the American Hero. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press. 1991.
Roeder, George, Jr. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War II. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993.Photography History