Hero. Heroic. Heroism. Bright shining words that we use with pride, words that give us a sense of hope and of safety. Clint Eastwood’s film Flags of Our Fathers asks us to think about those words, what they mean and how that meaning differs from person to person, circumstance to circumstance, and era to era.
The film considers the famous photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising from a number of interesting and provocative angles. Eastwood reveals to those who did not know (and I did not know) that the photo we have practically deified or certainly considered to represent all that is good and noble and honorable about America is actually a photo of a second flag being raised in that spot. The men who raised the first flag walked up a dangerous mountain, uncertain at each step of what they might find or who might be shot. The men who raised the second flag followed not long after (at least in the film), and the area had been pretty well cleared. Now this is not to undermine what either group of men accomplished, but Eastwood wants us to know the photo is not all we thought it was as he explores the naivete and needs of the American public.
We need heroes. We need hope. We needed both in abundance during the Second World War, as now. And the politicians, the public latched onto that photo, a fake in some ways, and imbued it with meaning. And we do that, too, don’t we? Imbue all sorts of things, people, images with meaning; it’s what makes humankind so wonderful. And so awful. Instead of finding out who the first group of men were, the military (in need of war bonds, funds for the war effort) and the civilian press went with the one they had and made heroic the men pictured, much to these men’s torment (and guilt). Now, to my mind, there is no doubt that the men who raised both flags as well as the many hundreds of thousands of men and women not pictured were all heroes of the Second World War, but it does make you wonder what is going on, how we are being led down the garden path when it comes to the things we take so firmly to heart: our heroes, our hope.
Eastwood asks us to consider the men who fought and died for us as heroes, and I think that we do, but he asks us to remember that they are in extreme circumstances, dependent the one on the other, and surrounded each day with the most obscene images of bodies ripped to pieces, blown apart, and the body parts of their buddies littering the ground they fight on and try to capture. These men, Eastwood asserts at the end of his film, fight for their country, yes, but they fight first and foremost for their fellow soldiers, their buddies, their friends.
Anyone upset by this or confused or disillusioned need only consider that big ideals like “country,” “patriotism,” “courage,” “valor,” “hero,” and even “God” (if He can be called an ideal) aren’t always in focus, aren’t always the driving force because they are so large, so big, so beyond easy contemplation, and so the men who fight for each other, for the guy in the next fox hole or behind them in line, to my mind, fight for us all, that we might hold on to some part of our hope. And can there be anything more heroic than that?