Iwo Jima: A Battle of Choice Waged on the Basis of Faulty Intelligence and Bad Planning


Mr. Boot is the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.

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On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines splashed ashore on a small volcanic island in the central Pacific. After four days of bitter fighting, a small patrol reached the peak of Mt. Suribachi, where it planted a U.S. flag in an iconic scene captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal. This famous image was hardly the end of the battle. Iwo Jima would not be secure until March 26. Almost all of the 21,000 Japanese defenders elected to die rather than surrender. Rooting them out cost more than 6,000 American dead and 20,000 wounded, making this the costliest battle in the storied history of the Marine Corps.

It is right and proper that there should be 60th-anniversary commemorations of these heroics. For, as Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz famously said, " … on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue." Yet it would be a mistake to bury this battle in a haze of "Greatest Generation" sentimentality. Our awe at the bravery of the Marines and their Japanese adversaries should not cause us to overlook the stupidity that forced them into this unnecessary meat grinder. Selective memories of World War II, which record only inspiring deeds and block out all waste and folly, create an impossible standard of perfection against which to judge contemporary conflicts.

That is why Marine Capt. Robert S. Burrell, a history instructor at the Naval Academy, has performed a valuable service by publishing in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Military History an article called "Breaking the Cycle of Iwo Jima Mythology." Burrell examines the planning of Operation Detachment, as the invasion was known, and shows that it was badly bungled.

The planners actually thought that Iwo Jima would be lightly defended. Nimitz had no idea that the Japanese had been preparing an elaborate defensive network of caves, bunkers and tunnels. As a result, he failed to allocate enough aircraft or warships to seriously dent the enemy defenses before the infantry landings. This oversight consigned the Marines to what a war correspondent called "a nightmare in hell." And for what?

The rationales for taking the island were shaky at the time and utterly specious in hindsight. The original impetus came from the U.S. Army Air Forces, which wanted a base from which fighters could escort B-29 Superfortress bombers on missions over Japan. But Iwo Jima was so far away from most Japanese targets — a 1,500-mile round trip — that even the newest fighter, the P-51D Mustang, lacked sufficient range and navigational equipment for that purpose. In any case, Japanese air defenses were so weak that B-29s didn't need any escort; they were able to reduce Japanese cities to ashes on their own.

When the fighter-escort mission didn't pan out, U.S. commanders had to come up with another rationale for why 26,000 casualties had not been in vain. After the war, it was claimed that Iwo Jima had been a vital emergency landing field for crippled B-29s on their way back from Japan. In a much-quoted statistic, the Air Force reported that 2,251 Superforts landed on Iwo, and because each one carried 11 crewmen, a total of 24,761 airmen were saved.

Burrell demolishes these spurious statistics. Most of those landings, he shows, were not for emergencies but for training or to take on extra fuel or bombs. If Iwo Jima hadn't been in U.S. hands, most of the four-engine bombers could have made it back to their bases in the Mariana Islands 625 miles away. And even if some had been forced to ditch at sea, many of their crewmen would have been rescued by the Navy. Burrell concludes that Iwo Jima was "helpful" to the U.S. bombing effort but hardly worth the price in blood.

In modern parlance, you might say that Iwo Jima was a battle of choice waged on the basis of faulty intelligence and inadequate plans. If Ted Kennedy had been in the Senate in 1945 (hard to believe, but he wasn't), he would have been hollering about the incompetence of the Roosevelt administration, which produced many times more casualties in five weeks than U.S. forces have suffered in Iraq in the last two years.

No such criticism was heard at the time, in part because of the rah-rah tone of World War II press coverage but also because Americans back then had a greater appreciation for the ugly, unpredictable nature of combat. They even coined a word for it: snafu (in polite language: "situation normal, all fouled up"). It's a shame that so many sentimental tributes to the veterans of the Good War elide this unpleasant reality, leaving us a bit less intellectually and emotionally prepared for the trauma of modern war.

This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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D. M. Giangreco - 7/22/2008

The fighter raids conducted out of Iwo Jima were very well documented by both the US and Japanese militaries and were sequenced --- not conducted simultaneously --- with naval operations. The fighter aircraft based on Okinawa were principally P-47s and, in any event, took part in no raids whatsoever beyond southern Shikoku. The Franklin's operations were likewise conducted in southern waters off Kyushu.

J. C. Holman - 10/12/2007

Assuming the witness could correctly identify the type of American fighter, P-51s were flying out of Okinawa not long after Iwo Jima. During the battle of Iwo Jima the USS Franklin was badly damaged after launching planes just 60 miles off the coast of Japan. If the witness didn't really know his airplanes while under fire, it could have just as easily been one of the Franklin's fighters.

Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

Actually, Joe Rosenthal's famous photo is of the second flag raised at Iwo Jima. The first, much smaller in size. was hoisted immediately on reaching the summit of Mount Suribachi. The second, larger flag, was hoisted with a little more security on the mountain top. My neighbor, a WWII Marine Vet and distinguished citizen, was landed at Iwo Jima. He never talked much about it other than it was pure hell.

I believe that bringing Teddy Kennedy's name into the mix that Mr. Boot cheapened what was a well written critique of Burrell's book.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/25/2005

I was watching a biography on television the other night and realized that I had given the name of the wrong Hitchcock film. The title of the one with the tight-turning biplane is North By Northwest.

Bill Holzapfel - 3/24/2005

I suppose it's not surprising for a neo-con hawk to draw the comparison between difficulties in previous wars and the current one, but it strikes me as a self-serving stretch. If his point is that mistakes are made in war, no one would dispute that. The battle for Iwo Jima, however, was waged based on flawed intelligence, not cherry-picked intelligence meant to serve an agenda that predated the campaign against Japan. Is Boot suggesting that the Pentagon thought Iwo Jima was where the yelowcake from Niger was being stored? Or perhaps they had those elusive aluminum tubes there? Let's face it: Max Boot and the Project for a New American Century crowd were advocating the invasion of Iraq long before September 11th gave them the opportunity. We went to war based not on flawed intelligence but with a willful disregard for the facts on the ground which would have made rationales for invasion untenable. Now that they've created a true snafu, they're trying to liken it to other setbacks in war? Iwo Jima was but one battle in a long campaign, one that was far more thought out than the one in which our soldiers are trapped.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/21/2005

It just struck me that 4, perhaps 6, passes may sound like an awfully low number, but it’s not. In fact, those numbers represent a rather optimal situation. A high-performance piston aircraft might only get two or three runs on the target principally because of congestion. Unlike, say, the slow biplane in Hitchcock’s "The Man Who Knew Too Much," that could make extremely tight turns when going after a hapless Cary Grant, P-51s are fast movers that shoot well past the target even while banking in a climb. The pilot must then reorient on the target and wait his turn because he may well be just one of two, four, possibly even 12 or more aircraft working over targets in the immediate vicinity.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/21/2005

Depending on the radius of your orbits and nature of the target(s), you can get as many as four to six passes in a half hour. You could theoretically blow off all your ammunition on a series of such attacks but no pilot would do that. In any event, evasive maneuvers to hopefully avoid hostile ground fire will limit the amount of time that you have guns on target and, bursts will average about five seconds or less unless you are way out in the country away from effective AA weapons.

erik blaine riker-coleman - 3/20/2005

I'm not sure why you trouble yourself reading a history discussion site, Mr. Clayson, as your response to this piece seems based on a belief that the study of history is largely pointless. If only participants can ever hope to understand a historical event, why bother?

However.... Regarding your question: "When did the military authorities of any nation last use the suggestions of an outsider in planning future campaigns...": I hate to bring up a recent and unpleasant instance, but does the name Ahmed Chalabi ring any bells?

Finally, for the record... Mr. Boot has in the past been affiliated with the by now well-known Project for a New American Century (and remains so, I believe), and might thus be presumed to have had some contact with well-placed fellow enthusiasts such as Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz. [1]

[1] disclaimer: I have had professional affiliations with several signatories of PNAC manifestoes, which hasn't exactly put me on the fast track to the inner circles of power; the fact remains that Boot is not exactly a hippy wacko, but rather a senior fellow at a decidedly Establishment institution, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal, and a prominent neo-conservative.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/18/2005

I may be betraying my ignorance here, but did P 51's carry enough ammo for half hour strafing attacks?

D. M. Giangreco - 3/18/2005

It turns out that the av-gas situation re the P-51s out of Iwo was even better than I suspected. By accident, I've run across Japanese references to strafing attacks lasting up to a half hour. That is a very long time.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/16/2005

Wasn't it after Iwo Jima was secured that we finally got a handle on the B-29s' notorious engine problems? How were Navy and Army Air Force planners to "know" (as opposed to "hope") this would happen when deciding how to get the maximum number of bombers over Japanese targets -- apply maximum pressure on its military and governemnt -- without suffering prohibitive, avoidable losses? As for Iwo turning out to not be critically necessary as a base for fighter escorts, Military Government teams located and destroyed more than 12,000 hidden aircraft after Japan's surrender (roughly a third more then even the most dire intel estimates believed existed). How were planners to know that the Japanese air forces would be ordered to hoard and hide all but their relatively few very high-performance aircraft in preparation for the invasion of Japan instead of sending them after the B-29s? And, incidentally, P-51s were hardly out of gas when returning to Iwo. They would not have been performing the many recorded instances of strafing ground targets if fuel consumption was that much of a concern.

I read the Journal of Military History article by Captain Burrell that Mr. Boot's essay is based on. Enjoyed it, and believe that Mr. Boot means well. But I also noted in a conversation at the recent Society For Military History Conference at the Citadel that the captain would have strengthened his case if he had specifically outlined how many of the landings on Iwo were, in fact, not of an "emergency" nature. For example, I have talked to many B-29 pilots and aircrew over the years, and it is my understanding that few if any training exercises were carried out there. Could one of the reasons for this be because Iwo's airfields were perpetually jammed with bombers having some sort of mechanical difficulty even after the engine problems stemming from exhaust stack collector rings and cowl flap problems were largely "fixed"?

Edward Siegler - 3/16/2005

The relevance of this article to the current situation in Iraq is clear: While partisan forces use the various setbacks, mistakes and costs of the war for their own purposes, they overlook the fact that most wars are marked by blunders and horrific bloodshed that dwarf what is taking place in Iraq in scale. By focusing on the costs and setbacks of a war to the exclusion of everything else, one can portray any war as a terrible failure. An in depth review of the horror of the Korean War was posted recently on HNN. By ignoring all the purposes and benefits of the war, such as the shocking contrast between life in North and South Korea today, the article gave the impression that the Korean War was an extremely bloody case of America flexing it's military muscle without regard for human life. The same treatment could be given to World War II. List all the civilian casualties incurred during the liberation of France in 1944, for example, and emphasize those caused by misdirected Allied fire. Give accusations of looting and rape by Allied troops and ignore any damage caused by the Germans and voila - you can portray this campaign as an unsung war crime.

Because of the unchallenged status of World War II as "the good war", this article is an in-your-face lampoon of the treatment the Iraq war receives in the media.

Vernon Clayson - 3/15/2005

Unless Max Book is associated with the government, the military, or one of their affiliated research organizations, his comments are blue sky pipe dreams. When did the military authorities of any nation last use the suggestions of an outsider in planning future campaigns, perhaps when they took the suggestions of some news media figure - as if. Judging the actions, minds, and mores, of leaders involved in the world's most deadly war sixty years after the fact is beyond Max Book unless he was intimately involved and knew what drove men at the time; if he is from a later generation he can only judge from his current understanding of war and its effects. If he is like so many now, he may be judging from the comments and actions of this generation of celebrities, writers and pundits, all far more genteel than those of the 1940's, they went to war, they were there.

Jon Robins - 3/15/2005

There may be something to be said, politically and socially speaking, for fighting "battles of choice" that lack strategic significance. Simply bypassing the island and starving it out was a viable option, but how attractive would that have seemed to those outside of the number-crunching crowd?

I think an argument can be made that the culture of the Navy and Marine Corps, as well as that of the US populace, required such battles whenever possible. It didn't matter that Jwo Jima had no military significance; it mattered that those 'damn dirty Japs' were on it. (Not to paint this as a racist affair- the enemy could have been composed of midget Finnish communists, and they still would have qualified as 'enemy' if they were fighting on the same side as the Japanese).

In that context, Iwo Jima was a "moral victory" of sorts, by proving the resolve of the US in eradicating every vestige of Japanese resistance. I know this does not exactly mesh with the concept of island-hopping that was occuring earlier in the Pacific campaign, but the fact that there were simply no more islands of note between Iwo Jima and the Japanese home islands and Okinawa makes Iwo Jima a "last stand" of sorts for the Japanese army in the small-island phase of the war.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/15/2005

Thank you for explaining the source of your opinions here. But I did not take this article as demeaning the men who battled at Iwo Jima. The author is writing very much within the tradition of military history, in which the choices of commmanders are probed and questioned.

To suggest that the island was a poor choice for invasion and that poor intelligence made a poor choice worse does not demean the men who fought. Nor does it bring the larger cause into question.

Vernon Clayson - 3/14/2005

I was in grade school when this battle was fought. Young men I knew, most barely 6 or 8 years older than I was at the time, were there and somehow survived. I resent this cold hearted and analytical mockery of their service. What purpose is served when the Max Books of the world become judgemental 60 years after the fact? He may think he can make society realize the futility of war by writing about it but there are still living veterans of Iwo Jima, or any other of the terrible battles of that war or any other war, who are far more qualified to make that argument. When they complain, Max Book can base his comment on their reality, in the meantime, he should keep his smirking opinions to himself.

Vernon Clayson - 3/14/2005

Well, then, Mr. Chamberlain, we agree, the mention of Ted Kennedy was "odd and unnecessary but largely tangenital", and I am somewhat "bitter and vengeful." Now that I have admitted that, I would like to say that I admired Teddy's brothers for all they did in life, especially in war and politics, but he is a mere shallow caricature. He has the looks, accent and hair of the brood but can you, or anyone, envision either Jack or Bobby ranting histrionically like Ted does now? He seemed more at ease with the world when he was drinking, perhaps he needs to get on the wagon, or is it off the wagon, I think I used to know but a Seinfeld show dialogue on the subject left me confused. Any reference to Ted Kennedy in any article rankles me, he is unworthy of comment in any serious discussion of history, or war, much less an article about brave men on Iwo Jima.

Charles Edward Heisler - 3/14/2005

"It's a shame that so many sentimental tributes to the veterans of the Good War elide this unpleasant reality, leaving us a bit less intellectually and emotionally prepared for the trauma of modern war."

I don't think it is a shame that we are intellectually and emotionally unprepared for modern war. What is the alternative? The unfortunate realities of war are that they must be fought and when fought, create casualties.
There are those that dream of alternatives to armed conflict of wills but reality suggests that these choices are rare.
Maybe the bad choices made in prior wars, Iwo Jima, Franklin, Gettysburg, Slapton Sands, have all served to make the use of our military more cautionary today--that is the only positive that comes from lessons learned hard.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/14/2005

The reference to Ted Kennedy in the article is odd and unecessary but largely tangential to the message.

You placed him at the center of your message. As such, you come across as "bitter and vengeful."

Vernon Clayson - 3/14/2005

This article about a terrible WWII battle makes sense until the author mentions that Ted Kennedy would have found incompetence in the Roosevelt administration; no way, Roosevelt was a Democrat and therefore would have been without fault in the eyes of any Kennedy. (His three older brothers served, one died in a B-24 and one survived his torpedo boat being sunk by a Japanese destroyer.) Teddy probably believes 40 years as a senator, riding the coattails of those siblings, means he likewise served his country but he is a pale shadow of any one of them. Unlike them, he was not old enough for that war but now he is an old man, bitter and vengeful, and in his senate orations seems to be following the advice of Dylan Thomas, "Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Hopefully, he will get past this angry stage and become more like his senatorial colleague Robert Byrd of WVA, meandering almost gracefully into senility.