Flags of Our Fathers
Reviewer: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 22 Sep 2006
Flags of Our Fathers was inspired by what the author James Bradley described as "The Photograph", complete with the initial capitalization that made it a proper noun. Perhaps that was justified, for that this photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on the island of Iwo Jima was one of the most, if not the most, widely published photographs of all time. Bradley was the son of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers. When his father died in 1994, he and his family found a Navy Cross medal among the items his father left behind. It was an honor that his father never shared with the family, and it intrigued the author. While the nation eagerly called the six figures in the photograph heroes, why did his father turn down so many interviews and speaking engagements, and remained a private figure?
The book was a collective biography of the six men in the photograph, and Bradley did a wonderful job bringing their lives to the readers. To compile their life stories, he visited many who had known these six men, and the end result was a book that gave the readers an inside look at their lives before, during, and after the battle. It was the stories during the battle that probably would carve the deepest memories among the readers, for that these stories were of one of the most vicious battles ever fought in the history of war. Some of the stories were described almost artistically, such as when flag raiser Franklin Sousley was hit by sniper fire.
[A particular road at Iwo Jima] was a known area of Japanese sniper fire. perhaps Franklin Sousley forgot that. perhaps he figured the Japanese had stopped shooting. Perhaps he was daydreaming about Marion.
The shot got him from behind. As the boys around him dove to the ground, Franklin swatted absently at his back, as though brushing away a blue-tailed fly. Then he fell.
Someone shouted to him: "How ya doin?" and Franklin answered back, "Not bad. I don't feel anything." And then he died.
Sousley's end was one of the many passages where the reader might choose to revisit immediately after the first pass, re-reading once more to soak in the simple but yet elegant way Bradley narrated the event. The author did not shy away from telling the stories of the many violent deaths that occurred on Iwo Jima during that battle, however. Some of the more descriptive accounts of Marines' deaths provided a picture of the price the Marines paid for every yard of advance they made.
A definite page turner, that very characteristic was also the book's biggest weakness. Part of the reason why the book was a page turner was because of the hyperboles the author regularly used. Though they made certain passages more dramatic, sometimes these exaggerations appear cheap and fantastic.
A caution must also be raised to readers who had not yet picked up Flags of Our Fathers. The book was not a true work of history; it was the story of the six flag raisers and their comrades around them. As such, the book was told entirely from the American perspective. At certain points, it felt as if the author did not pay the equal amount of respect for the Japanese soldiers who had fought just as valiantly to defend the island as the Marines had in taking it. However, the lack of the Japanese point of view was probably by design, for that the book's focus was on the flag raisers.
One trivial item worth mentioning was the account of how photographer Rosenthal came about taking the famous photograph. Many people probably did not know that Rosenthal almost missed the opportunity to take the picture that later won him a Pulitzer Prize. It was one of the interesting trivia that the reader would pick up as she went through the book. Perhaps unimportant, but these little tidbits the author included made the book enjoyable.
Iwo Jima was a battle that made heroes out of both the Americans and the Japanese who fought there. This book gave the readers a chance to immerse in the drama of the American campaign on that island. It was a wonderful book in its presentation and readability, and it could provide the first-hand description of the gruesome battle that the reader might not see when reading a typical historical text.
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