After-Image

By Guy Westwell

flag-raising-on-iwo-jima-hi-q.jpgRaising the Flag on Iwo Jima

Later this year a Hollywood movie directed by Clint Eastwood and produced by Steven Spielberg will retell the story of US marines raising the Stars and Stripes on the remote island in the Pacific, Iwo Jima, at the end of World War 11. Flags of Our Fathers is based on the best-selling book which tells the stories of the men who raised the flag in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph.

Rosenthal’s photograph appeared in the New York Times on February 25th 1945, showing American victory in this decisive battle. Fighting had left 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese soldiers dead. From the island of Iwo Jima the US could now launch devastating air strikes against the Japanese mainland.

Propaganda directives from the Office of War Information (OWI) had urged the mass media to emphasise the difficulties faced by American troops in order to combat over-confidence that victory was close. Photographers competed to show the ‘right’ image. Rosenthal’s caught the message of war going well, but with much work still to be done.

It was used for the official poster of the 7th War Loan bond drive, with the line ‘now all together’ stressing the need for consensus. The men from the photograph- a Native American, a Texan, a Kentuckian, a French Canadian and a Czech American- were taken out of combat to tour America, and helped raise 220 million dollars.

montage.jpgL: Arlington National Cemetery. Sculptor DeWeldon with Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, John Bradley. The survivors modeled for DeWeldon. C: © 2001 The Record (Bergen Co., NJ) Photo by Thomas E. Franklin R: Flags of Our Fathers, book cover

In 1954, Felix de Weldon reproduced the photograph as a 15 metre high statue in Arlington National Cemetery, to commemorate the Marine Corp. This monument helped orientate Americans to new Cold War commitments, with World War II presented as a key battle in the wider campaign to ensure a transcendent American future, free for liberal democracy and capitalism.

Over fifty years later, the photograph has come back into circulation, reproduced at ground zero after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. The restaging helped galvanise public support for America’s commitment to military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, reactivating the binary logic of the Cold War, in the name of freedom and democracy against barbarianism.

When Flags of Our Fathers is released the cultural memory embedded in this image will be recalled. The photograph has already appeared in numerous films, most famously with John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949. In this new film, Spielberg’s liberal democratic view of American history will engage with Eastwood’s tougher-edged vision of American realities. Significantly, Eastwood is currently shooting Red Sun, Black Sand, jumping perspective to tell the story of the Japanese experience of this battle.


Guy Westwell is a writer and lectures at London Metropolitan University