Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Letters From Iwo Jima


The verdict is in: 2006 was a good year for good movies, but not a year for great ones. We have now seen all 5 Oscar-nominated films (and I don’t think I’ve ever done that before the ceremonies), and they’re all good. But none are great. The film I enjoyed the most this year was Dreamgirls, closely followed by Little Miss Sunshine, and the one that came closest to greatness was United 93. Neither of those were nominated, so it’s LMS, in my opinion, by default.

Iwo Jima was, and is, as worthless a piece of shitty real estate as ever blood was spilled needlessly for, a frying pan of volcanic rock and black sand where nothing grows. But the US needed it to base their B-29s to bomb the home islands for the projected invasion, and the Japanese … well, it was part of the sacred homeland, that that was reason enough to defend it to the last man.

This film is good, no question. It’s also too long by about 20 minutes, and fairly slow when the bombs aren’t falling. But there is something quite disturbing about it that only a few reviewers picked up on. It really gives the Japanese a break.

I understand Clint Eastwood’s intention here, and I wouldn’t have wanted him to portray the average Japanese grunt as a slavering, fanatical, homicidal maniac … but you know, a hell of a lot of them were. You don’t believe me, read The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang. It will open your eyes. There are countless other accounts of the behavior of the Imperial Army from the 1930s to 1945, and they will make your skin crawl. And the Japanese are still in denial about it, and this film won’t help.

Do I think all Japanese soldiers were like that? Of course not. Do I think American marines were lily-white? Of course not, but most of the illegal (by international law) things they did were in the nature of killing prisoners who were too inconvenient to take care of (which is shown here), whereas the norm for the Imperial Army was rape and torture and degradation (which is not shown). Their officer corps treated their own troops like slaves, and civilians and prisoners as dogs. They were as vile as the Nazis.

Eastwood’s point, and I agree with him, is that most soldiers in any army are pitiful tools who just want to stay alive and go home. That’s why this is a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, which I haven’t seen yet. Show the battle from both sides, an excellent idea. But the point is not exactly a new one, it goes back at least to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which was done from the German point of view. And I think he was way too easy on the Japanese.