Love for the Flag Explains the Iwo Jima Memorial's Power—and Whether We Should Topple Other Monuments

Monuments are erected to celebrate victories and mourn losses. We chisel names into buildings as a way to claim a piece of posterity. But what happens when those same statues and touted heroes are no longer role models for society's current values? In the wake of the George Floyd protests this summer, statues throughout America of Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, John Calhoun and others have been torn down. Princeton University removed President Woodrow Wilson's name from its School of Public Policy and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City requested that a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt be removed from the front of its building because it depicts Black and indigenous people in an inferior way. What is the value in monuments to the past? Award-winning historian Keith Lowe tackles these questions among others in his new book, Prisoners of History (St. Martin's, December). In this excerpt from his book, Lowe explores the differing attitudes to monuments by Europeans and Americans by analyzing the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial and explains how American flag-waving is perceived very differently abroad.

I often give lectures about the second World War and America's mythology of heroism. Americans sometimes seem to regard their war heroes as if they were not human at all, but figures from legend, or even saints. President Ronald Reagan spoke of them as a Christian army, impelled by faith and blessed by God. President Bill Clinton called them "freedom's warriors," who had immortalized themselves by fighting "forces of darkness." TV journalist Tom Brokaw famously proclaimed them "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." How can any real-life soldier or veteran possibly live up to such expectations?

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LET FREEDOM RING Americans view the Iwo Jima memorial as a monument to liberation. Its flag is the real reason why the memorial is so well loved in America. FRANK GRACE/GETTY

In the American consciousness, the role that their soldiers played during the Second World War has come to represent everything that is best about their country. Europeans simply can't quite believe that anyone is serious when they speak about their war veterans in this way. But this gulf in understanding between Europeans and Americans is immediately apparent as soon as one looks at their war memorials. America makes monuments to its heroes; Europe much more often makes monuments to its victims. American monuments are triumphant; Euro-pean ones are melancholy. American monuments are idealistic, while Euro-pean ones—occasionally, at least—are more likely to be morally ambiguous.

One of the best-loved monuments to American heroism during World War II is the Marine Corps memorial in Arlington, Virginia. It is based on one of the most iconic images from 1945—Joe Rosenthal's photograph of a group of marines when they raised a flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle for the island of Iwo Jima.

Like all good memorials, this one tells a story. To understand it properly, one needs to go to the beginning of the conflict. America's war began on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their notorious, surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This remains one of the defining events of American history. For 90 minutes, hundreds of Japanese planes bombed American ships, airfields and port facilities, killing more than 2,400 people and wounding almost 1,200 more. Twenty-one ships were sunk, and 188 military aircraft destroyed. The sense of shock that this produced in American society is impossible to overstate. Its only recent parallel has been the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The logic behind this military strike was simple. Japan wanted to take control of the whole Pacific region and to discourage America from stepping in. The Japanese leadership did not think that America had the stomach for a long war in the Pacific, and were willing to gamble that a quick, decisive victory would force them to negotiate a settlement. In other words, Pearl Harbor was not supposed to start a war with America; it was supposed to prevent one.

This was a risky strategy. America never gives up without a fight. Once they had recovered from their initial surprise, the American military responded with ruthless determination. Over the next three-and-a-half years, it clawed its way, step by step, back across the Pacific Ocean.

The Marines were often at the forefront of the action. Eventually, U.S. forces advanced all the way to the shores of Japan. The first island they reached was Iwo Jima. After four days of savage fighting, a group of marines managed to fight their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the island. To signal that they had reached the summit, they attached a U.S. flag to a length of piping and raised it. Later that day, a second group of marines brought a larger flag up to replace it, and war photographer Rosenthal was there to capture the moment for posterity.

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GREATEST GENERATION Photographer Joe Rosenthal in July 2000, with his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

It is this second flag-raising that the Marine Corps Memorial immortalizes in bronze. The sculpture is a study in determination. The effort required to plant the flag is plain to see: each one of the six figures appears to be straining every sinew. They are the personification of American grit. The sculpture is also a study in unity: these Americans are all working together in harmony, their hands placed along the same pole, their legs bent in parallel with one another. It is a study in violence—more so, perhaps, than any other American monument to the war. No Japanese soldiers are being killed here, but the force with which the six men are driving the flag into hostile foreign ground is at least suggestive of something darker, which the U.S. censor never allowed the American people to see.

Most of all, however, this is a study in vengeance. The story that begins with Pearl Harbor ends with Ameri-can troops raising their flag on Japanese soil. It is a stark warning: this is what happens to anyone who dares attack America.

But vengeance and grim determination are not qualities that explain the reverence with which most Americans regard this monument. There is clearly something else going on.

To understand this, one must move one's gaze from the figures at the front of the monument to those at the back. These men are not driving a spike into the soil, they are reaching their hands up, as if to heaven. Above them flies the U.S. flag. The figure right at the back is trying to touch the flagpole, his outstretched fingers not quite reaching it. The effect is reminiscent of Michelangelo's famous painting of Adam stretching his hand toward God in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Felix de Weldon, the artist who sculpted the memorial, explained the image in a speech at the inauguration in 1954. "The hands of these men reaching out," he said, are "groping for that which may be beyond one's means to attain, needing assistance from the power above, that power which we all need in times of adversity, and without whose guidance our efforts might well be fruitless." This divine guidance is symbolized by the flag above them, which de Weldon called "the emblem of our unity, our power, our thoughts and purpose as a nation."

In other words, the real subject of the sculpture is not the U.S. Marines at all, nor the victory over the Japanese, nor anything else to do with the Second World War. It is the flag which gives the monument its real meaning. This symbol, with its fusion of God and nation, is the real reason why the memorial is so well loved in America.

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RECOGNIZING SERVICE The monument as it was being erected in 1954 as a way to honor all marines who have given their lives for the country since 1775. BETTMANN /GETTY

If there is a gulf of understanding between Europeans and Americans over the memory of the Second World War, then this is one of the issues that lies at the heart of it. Europe and America learned very different lessons from the war. In the 1930s, Europe was exposed to all the dangers of flag-waving. In the violent years that followed, it experienced firsthand what happens when fanatical nationalism is allowed to get out of control. As a consequence, flags today are symbols that must be treated with great care. In post-war, post-colonial Europe, anyone who shows excessive passion toward their national flag is generally treated with suspicion. The idea of a monument glorifying the planting of a national flag on foreign soil would be absolutely unthinkable.

In the U.S., by contrast, flags are everywhere: outside courtrooms, outside schools and government buildings, in public parks, outside people's homes, on their cars, adorning their clothes. The national anthem, which is nothing less than a hymn to the flag, is sung before every NFL football game; and the pledge of allegiance to the flag is recited by every child from the moment they are old enough to attend school. This has been the case since long before the Second World War; but the war cemented the holy bond between Americans and their flag.

What Europeans fail to understand is that, to most Americans, the flag means much more than mere nationhood. It is a symbol of virtues they believe to be universal: hope, freedom, justice and democracy. Between 1941 and 1945, Americans watched the progress of their flag across Europe and the Pacific, saw liberation spreading in its wake, and knew that they were doing something remarkable. After the war they were magnanimous to those they had defeated, nursing their economies back to health, and quickly handing them back their independence. This is the final meaning of the Iwo Jima memorial: when an American soldier plants a flag on foreign soil it is not an act of domination, but of liberation.

Americans understand this instinctively. That is why, since 1945, America has paraded its flag so proudly in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Somalia and Afghanistan. It is why, during the liberation of Baghdad in 2003, a modern Marine climbed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square and wrapped a U.S. flag around his face. Americans believe passionately in the values they promote, which are no different from the values for which they fought the Second World War.

Unfortunately, other parts of the world see things rather differently. However glorious an American flag seems when flown in the U.S., it begins to look very different when planted on foreign soil.

Excerpted from Prisoners of History: What Monuments to World War II Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves by Keith Lowe. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.