Monday, February 23, 2009

Flag Raising Remembrances

The iconic image captured by Joe Rosenthal on the summit of Iwo Jima's volcano, Suribachi, stirred a nation and remains the most ubiquitous symbol of American warrior heroism. Sixty-four years ago today, four days after storming ashore across fire-swept beaches, a Marine patrol reached the top of the lone mountain overlooking the tiny Japanese-held island astride the American axis of advance to Tokyo. The Marines raised a small American flag. It was replaced shortly thereafter by a much larger flag, the raising of which was caught on film by both a motion picture cameraman and in a snap-shot by Rosenthal. The photographic record of the event, including a staged picture of Marines cheering the flag-raising was sent back to the United States and Rosenthal figured that picture would be the one that would make the papers, not the one of the second flag-raising. But, there was something about the almost accidental picture that captured the imagination of everyone Stateside.

I've heard many speakers try to explain, some very eloquently and convincingly, why the now-famous image has so ingrained itself in the American psyche. Suffice to say, there are certain elements of the picture that lend themselves to tradition, legend, and example. Study the picture and you will quickly see that none of the flag-raisers' faces are discernible--it is an "everyman" image into which any American can impose his or her self. More, every member of the flag-raising team is either in the act of an important function of the mission, or attempting to contribute--there are no "bystanders." None of the group are doing anything particularly heroic--yet, they represent an entire generation of heroes.

The thing I like most about the image is that the men are raising and honoring the symbol of our nation. They aren't draping themselves in the flag. They aren't using it for their own purposes of personal aggrandizement. They aren't imposing themselves in front of it. There is a striking sense of humility and subordination of self to the best interests of the nation for which that flag stands. The flag is not perfectly displayed, it's staff has not reached it's pull upright potential--just like the nation for which it stands.

I have a painted reproduction of the Iwo Jima Flag Raising in a place of honor on the wall of my study. It was a gift from a team of Marines I had been privileged to lead for three years, from 1990 to 1993. One of those Marines, Master Gunnery Sergeant Vickers, was the artist. It is a most prized possession, among a collection of many prized possessions from my active duty career as a Marine.

I feel a profound sense of sorrow for those Americans whose most prized possessions do not include a representation of the symbol of the nation that has made possession of personal property such a cherished right.
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