Contrary to the popular expression, cameras sometimes do lie. It doesn’t even take Photoshop mischief to incriminate an innocent person or exaggerate a wartime scene into outrageous propaganda, as some editors lately have learned as they passed on doctored images of the Lebanon war.
On the other hand, some photography captures large truths about the human spirit, as San Franciscan Joe Rosenthal learned, 61 years ago, when he snapped his Speed Graphic shutter on five Marines and one Navy corpsman hoisting the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
Rosenthal, who died this week at 94, positioned himself in the volcanic crater, near the highest promontory on Iwo Jima, when his fellow Americans provided what was to become one of the most iconic images of the last century. As the detail-obsessed will tell you, Rosenthal’s famous picture was of the second flag-raising, this one unstaged, moments after the command hoisted Old Glory so that it could be seen from every vantage point on the tiny island.
Seizing the Japanese territory, 660 miles from Tokyo, turned out to be a major psychological boost for wartime Americans. The war in the Pacific was to last just a half-year longer, as citizens snatched up war bonds and postage stamps featuring Rosenthal’s photograph, now universally seen as a masterpiece.
Pause for a moment. As new generations remember nothing of the war bonds and postage stamps, and commuters whiz by the 100-ton Marine Corps War Memorial, a bronze sculpture of Rosenthal’s photographed image at Arlington National Cemetery, you might wonder if this is the same America.
Through that February and March 1945, the Marines suffered nearly 26,000 casualties, one-third of the invading force. This was a morale booster back home? Today, it’s an incredulous notion. Since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, one-tenth of that number of American military forces have died in combat.
What — other than domestic politics and an atmosphere in which photographers hunt for an American-committed atrocity to shoot — can explain the public’s increasingly sour attitude toward the Iraq war? Try as the pundits might, it is as impossible to decouple the Battle of Baghdad from the global war on terrorism as to separate the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.
Arguably, we face a transnational enemy as fiercely anti-Semitic as Nazism and as determined to destroy us as Imperial Japan. The potential firepower of those now targeting us is incomparably greater, and our civilization faces its greatest peril.
What will it take to rouse us, to become one with those men who scrambled up Mount Suribachi to plant our flag? Another 9/11, even worse than the attacks five years ago on New York and Washington? And why do we expect that, if a nuclear-tipped missile makes its way from North Korea to San Francisco, not a few in The City will curse George W. Bush?