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In Defense of Iwo


In a March 3 American Prospect article, Charles Taylor did a fine job of debunking the myth of Clint Eastwood. As Scott has noted, while Eastwood is a talented filmmaker, his catalogue is uneven, and the worst work nearly unwatchable. Unfortunately, in the process of criticizing Eastwood, Taylor gets his latest work, Letters from Iwo Jima, badly wrong.

Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek have argued that Eastwood presents a picture of the Imperial Japanese Army that takes insufficient account of its brutality. In World War II, the Japanese Army operated with barbarity against both civilian and military foes. The IJA committed many atrocities in its eight year was against China, including most notably the Rape of Nanking. After capturing the Chinese capital, the IJA ran wild, raping and beheading civilians without any apparent purpose other than terror. In Manila in 1945, a retreating and isolated Japanese army turned its frustration on the local population, massacring thousands before American forces could retake the city. The Imperial Japanese Army’s treatment of prisoners was similarly brutal. After defeating a combined Filipino-American force at Bataan, the IJA marched 75000 American and Filipino troops nine days in horrific conditions, killing thousands. Similarly, 16000 surrendered Allied troops died in slave-labor conditions during the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway. The issue of Japanese use of “comfort women”, or forced sex slaves, has again come to the fore as a consequence of the unfortunate comments of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Indeed, the depredations of the Imperial Japanese Army had effects beyond the murder of its victims. As Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper detail in Forgotten Armies, the brutality of the Japanese Army in China, Burma, Malaya, and elsewhere helped undercut support from anti-colonial groups that might otherwise have been sympathetic with, or at least neutral toward, Japan’s pan-Asian propaganda.

Taylor and Zacharek contend that because Eastwood doesn’t depict the Japanese Army massacring civilians or killing very many American prisoners, Letters from Iwo Jima amounts to a whitewash. Of course, there were few civilians on Iwo Jima for the Japanese Army to massacre, and because of the tactical situation it had very few opportunities to brutalize and kill American prisoners. This left Eastwood with several options. He could refrain from making a movie depicting the Japanese view of the Battle of Iwo Jima. He could demonstrate Japanese brutality through flashbacks, an effective if clumsy device. Finally, Eastwood could, instead of giving us obvious examples of Japanese brutality, show us an Army that would, given the opportunity, commit atrocities. Eastwood chose the last, and did his job with uncharacteristic subtlety. He told the story so well, in fact, that some critics seem to have missed it entirely.

Taylor saw a stylized, honorable Japanese Army that bore no relationship to the real Japanese Army. Eastwood showed me, on the other hand, an army capable of committing the atrocities of Manila and Nanking. Eastwood ably demonstrated the character of the Imperial Japanese Army, both how it understood itself and how that understanding could break down into an orgy of unrestrained, irrational violence. Early in the film, as the Americans take control of Mount Suribachi, a group of Japanese soldiers is ordered to abandon their position and retreat to a more defensible point. Infused with “warrior ethos” several in this group decide to commit suicide (using hand grenades) instead of obeying orders and retreating. The rest of the group, less enthusiastic about detonating themselves, nevertheless complies because of both overwhelming social pressure and the very real threat of battlefield execution. This scene is key to Eastwood’s understanding of the Imperial Japanese Army, but neither Taylor nor Zacharek mention it. Along with a few others, this scene demonstrates that Eastwood understands the internal problems that helped lead the IJA to commit atrocities.

Armies do not, by and large, commit atrocities because they’re full of horrible people. Instead, they engage in horrific behavior because of institutional and situational factors. Military units that display extreme ideological commitment easily dehumanize the enemy, leaving just a few short steps to atrocity. Even then, committing atrocity doesn’t often appeal to a lot of soldiers. Social cohesion and pressure to conform, especially in a culture that puts a particularly high value on conformity, can lead soldiers to temporarily forget their own values in favor of group togetherness. Terror also pushes soldiers to commit atrocities, both in response to threats from their own comrades and as a reaction to fear of the enemy. Finally, while some armies commit atrocities in response to direct orders from superiors, many don’t. Military units that respond poorly and erratically to central orders tend to take matters into their own hands, including relations with civilians and prisoners of war. The political imperative to treat conquered civilians and captured prisoners humanely requires tight discipline at the unit level, as the urge for vengeance and rampage can easily take over a group of soldiers.

Eastwood gives us an army designed for atrocity. He depicts the Japanese Army as enthusiastic to the point of irrationality, deeply invested in social cohesion and group conformity, terrified both of itself and of the overwhelming American power, yet with extremely poor chain of command discipline. This is an army that would, given the opportunity, do terrible things. That it lacked the opportunity on Iwo doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the organization. Eastwood reminds us that the men of such an army, in spite of all the evil that they could do, still clutch pictures of their loved ones when they die. Moreover, he shows us the limits of what professional soldiers can do within such an organization. While Taylor saw the depictions of General Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi as a mixture of archetypes borrowed from war and samurai movies, I saw a couple of officers trying to win a battle, hindered not just by the Americans but also by the limits of their own organization. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characteristics that make an army likely to commit atrocities also make it ineffective on the battlefield. The Japanese Army performed unevenly during World War II, combining occasional brilliance with consistent problems of discipline, supply, and organization. The suicidal tendencies that Kuribayashi has to deal with make it harder to defend Iwo, not easier.

Eastwood doesn’t literally show us the Rape of Nanking. Instead, he does something far more important; he shows us the army capable of committing the Rape of Nanking, and the Bataan Death March, the Burma-Thailand Railroad, and the atrocities in Manila. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima attempt to understand the battlefront in terms of the home front. In the former, Eastwood is at his clumsiest and most obvious. In the latter, he’s at his most subtle. Letters from Iwo Jima should be understood as part of a family of films, along with Breaker Morant, Battle of Algiers, or The Grand Illusion, that conceptualize the practice of war as distinct from but embedded within a larger social universe. It’s among Eastwood’s best work, and critical over-appreciation of Eastwood’s other films shouldn’t obscure its quality.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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