Lessons from Iwo Jima

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In February 1945, a U.S. force of some 70,000 Marines invaded Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island 522 miles south of Tokyo defended by over 22,000 Japanese. American intelligence expected the island to fall in five days. Instead the battle lasted seven times as long—from February 19 until March 26—ending in 6,800 U.S. fatalities, close to 20,000 U.S. wounded, and the death of 20,700 defenders. Twenty-two Marines and five Navy personnel received Medals of Honor from this ferocious engagement.

For Japanese, the final year of World War II in Asia was a blur of wholesale death overseas and on the home front as well, with U.S. air raids eventually targeting 65 cities. The nation's leaders had started two wars they could not end—first in China in 1937, and then against the United States and European colonial powers ensconced in Asia in December 1941. From the emperor on down, they were caught in the coils of their disastrous wars of choice: trapped by rhetoric, paralyzed by a blood debt to those who died in the lost cause, persistently blind to the psychology and rage of the enemy. They had no real policy other than escalating killing and dying—hoping against hope that this would persuade U.S. and British leaders to abandon their plans for invading the home islands and their demands for unconditional surrender.

Apart from momentary grief and commemoration, Iwo Jima did not register strongly on Japanese consciousness. When Hollywood director Clint Eastwood cast Japanese actors for his recent reconstructions of the battle, most knew nothing of the slaughter; and small wonder. Close to two-million Japanese died in that last year of the war—over a million fighting men (most of whom perished from starvation or illnesses related to malnutrition rather than actual combat), and a half million or more civilians in the urban air raids that began in March 1945 and continued through the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Extermination of the garrison on Iwo Jima was easily obscured in the shadow of this grander catastrophe. And the grander catastrophe itself, of course, took place long before most contemporary Japanese were born.1...

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