Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fathers and Sons, Flags and Soldiers

In keeping with my recently established theme, there is another not so recently published book that speaks eloquently about the experiences of the American infantryman during World War II – in this instance primarily the experiences of the Marine rifleman in the Pacific theater. I avoided reading James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers” for years because I underestimated both this book and the author. I claimed the historian’s skepticism of an unknown author writing on a topic of which I already knew a good deal from my own studies (including the controversy and allegations that the photo was posed), and more personally I expected a sentimental and even emotionally overwrought tale of father-son bonding left too late. I think that in admitting my error I can safely claim that at least I have only rarely been this wrong about something. Read this book.

James Bradley has presented us in “Flags of Our Fathers” with what is in fact a rather complex work. It is the story of a son reaching out to know more of the untold story of a father, it is a military history of one of our bloodiest battles in one of our bloodiest conflicts – the war with Japan that crossed the Pacific Ocean and back, it is the story of how the experience of war and close combat can and does effect men and in turn their families, it is the story of the power of an image and how we relate to that powerful image individually and as a society or as institutions within that society. As a historian, I enjoyed Bradley's ability to work with documents, people, places, and the artifacts of war to present as complete an account as possible of a moment in history – tracing back to its earliest roots and carrying the story forward to examine its lasting impact on individuals and even the nations represented.

As in the other theaters of war that we place together in that intellectual box we label World War II, combat in the Pacific was not a constant unchanging reality. The fighting on Guadalcanal, in the Philippines, on Tarawa, and on Iwo Jima, for example, shared only the reality of men fighting and dying. Bradley’s narrative does a good job of identifying and discussing this evolution that in simplest terms went from fighting off banzai charges to the hard slog of digging a hidden enemy out of his bunkers, caves, spider holes, and trenches – an enemy whose from was invisible even as he laid down a deadly fire with every weapon at his disposal. The author also places this experience of the ground war in its proper context within a war that called upon the full range of combined arms – artillery, tanks, naval gunfire, and aircraft – to which was ultimately added a new, ultimate weapon in the atomic bomb.

Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, (c) 2000 James Bradley and Ron Powers, Bantam, New York

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