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Letters From Iwo Jima (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Imperial Japan’s militaristic society of the 1930s-40s was the most bestial on the planet. They were responsible for so many infamous brutalities that the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the Comfort Women (when they made sexual slaves of more than a half million innocent women), the enslavement of POWs to construct the Burmese railroad (made famous by the film “The Bridge On the River Kwai” 1957), the attack on Pearl Harbor while they were negotiating “peace” in Washington, and the Kamikazes, barely scratch the surface. I’ve seen photographs of what they did in one forgotten village at around the time of the Rape of Nanking and they will forever be etched in my mind. One photograph was of a peasant being beheaded in the town square; another was of a woman having her breasts cut off, also in the town square. They were brutes, and it was spread throughout the entire society, not just a few. There were too many atrocities to just set it down to a few bad eggs. These were people united in a way of thinking, that they were primary and everyone else was expendable. It's not just random that 56% of American POWs of the Japanese died in captivity vs. 1% in Europe during World War II. They viewed everyone else as less than human. Their zealotry was unmatched anywhere on the planet.

Even the left-leaning Los Angeles Times is critical, saying in an editorial on December 20, 2006 that Japan is “tainted by the stance of Japanese conservatives and the nation’s unwillingness to atone as fully as Germany has for its World War II behavior. Many in Japan downplay or deny imperial atrocities in Asia. Victims richly deserving of reparations have been turned away by Japanese courts, while the insistence of national leaders to bow before war criminals at the infamous Yasukuni Shrine justifiably infuriates Chinese and Koreans.”

So Clint Eastwood makes two movies trying to make a moral equivalence between imperial Japan, responsible for all the atrocities, and America, fighting to end the horrible atrocities, one right after the other, “Flags of Our Fathers,” about the three surviving Americans who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima, and, now, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” about the battle from the Japanese point of view.

In the former, Clint went out of his way to paint the American military in a bad light. He showed, for just one example, that the reason why the second flag was raised was because a selfish Colonel wanted the first flag for a “souvenir.” The true story is that the first flag was too small to be seen and a General ordered it replaced with a second, much larger flag. But that wouldn’t have made the U.S. military look bad, so Clint invented something that would.

Now in “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint creates moral equivalency between the heroic Americans invading Iwo Jima and the zealots who were defending it. What is really offensive is that with all the atrocities Imperial Japan’s military committed in those years, the only atrocity that Clint could bring himself to show in his film is committed by an American, a marine murdering in cold blood two Japanese soldiers who had voluntarily surrendered. There is no evidence that this is based on a real event. It certainly could be nothing in the alleged letters that could reveal this because none of the Japanese in the caves could have known of such an occurrence. But, regardless, even if one American GI might have executed two prisoners of war, considering that 7,000 marines died heroically in taking Iwo Jima, it tells you something about Clint that he went out of his way to show the Americans as unfeeling brutes.

Of course Clint pictures all of Imperial Japan’s soldiers as fine fellows. Why, when one American is captured, instead of torturing him, this one was given the last morphine the Japanese had to ease his pain, instead of giving it to their wounded, and he is gently “interrogated” by a Japanese officer who trades stories of horses with him. Thousands of marines are swarming all over the place to kill them, and this officer spends his time with a rare POW talking of horses! What wonderful chaps these Eastwoodian-enemy soldiers are!

Eastwood seems to have made a judgment that because the soldiers of Imperial Japan loved their wives and children, they were just ordinary people like the GI's who were forced to defend the world against them. But bad people can love their wives and children and still be bad people, still force more than a half million innocent women into sexual slavery. Loving your wife and children doesn't excuse, the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and the other atrocities the Japanese military committed during the first half of the 20th century. Eastwood's conclusion resulted in this movie, which will influence the millions of people who see it, and that's a shame because it makes the Imperial Japanese soldiers seem better, more humane, people than the Americans, which is an abdication of truth. Why would he make a movie seeking moral equivalency between Americans and the soldiers of Imperial Japan? Clint should ask one of the 600,000 Comfort Women whose lives were utterly destroyed what they think of his depiction of the Imperial Japanese (Japan has never apologized or taken any responsibility for what happened to these poor women).

While technically this is a well made, entertaining movie, Imperial Japan’s military society in the ‘30s and ‘40s was barbaric, reminiscent of the worst of Genghis Khan; its brutality was pervasive. Clint Eastwood’s revisionism painting America in a bad light and turning these zealots into boon chaps won’t change the facts, but it will influence the ignorant and uninformed, and that's the main reason I condemn it.

December 13, 2006