Article: Mount Suribachi: The Power of Image

Written by: Mohsen Ebrahimizadeh Ghahrood

Mount Suribachi: The Power of Image

And The Evolution of Deliberate History into Cinematic Entertainment


Background of the conflict

The Movie Flags of our Fathers

The Images of Flags On Mount Suribachi

Rosenthal’s Flag Raising Images As An Iconic Image

The 7th War Bond Drive




Photographs and films are two important tools that people use in their everyday lives. When something makes its way into our lives, always a question arises about how these things are influencing our lives, changing our minds, and shaping our consciousness toward our world. In the dynamic interplay between media, history, and collective memory, the battle of Iwo Jima can be one of the best example to analyze. This important conflict, which happened during World War II between the Imperial Japanese Army and The United States Marine Corps, can be used as a case for understanding the relationship between representation and reality in the realm of conflict narratives. Many layers of meaning are rooted in this historical event, shaped and reshaped by films, textual accounts, and photographs that try to capture its reality.

With the phenomenon of social media, we now have access to an uncountable number of pictures and videos that are being watched every day. Especially regarding politics, these materials which exist around an event, a speech of a president, the comments of influencers, or social media activities, these all and many others are shaping our awareness of historical events and our memories.

As I start with the background of the Battle of Iwo Jim within the framework of semiotics of conflict, it is important to understand how an event is represented and interpreted in different ways. In this essay I tried to go through different landscapes of media artifacts, from iconic photographs to cinematic adaptations, to figure out how these visual narratives construct and deconstruct our understanding of an historical event. Then I will focus on the movie Flags of Our Fathers 2006, maybe one of the most well-known materials around this event directed by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood an adoption of the book with the same title by James Bradley and Ron Powers which was published in 2006. In the center of my essay I will discuss about the photograph by Joe Rosenthal, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima and explain the reasons why this photograph became iconic in American public history and how the American government used this image in many different occasions to pursue their aims, I will specifically use the 7th War Bond Drive in the United States of America as an example. 

Background of the conflict

The Battle of Iwo Jima took place during World War II, from February 19 to March 26, 1945. It was a battle between the United States Marine Corps and the Imperial Japanese Army on the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean about 660 miles south of Tokyo. Iwo Jima holds some significance. The name literally means Sulphur Island and was renamed years ago. This island itself doesn’t have specific resources and the US assault force had planned to take the island in 4 days. The battle lasted 35 days. Over time, in the years 1942,1943,1944 and so on, Americans regained control of some islands that had been taken by Japanese forces during World War II. 

The battle of Iwo Jima was significant because it was the first time that the US assaulted directly on Japanese imperial territory. In this battle, there was an enormously belligerent defensive force from Japanese forces. James Bradley, in his book “ Flags of Our Fathers,“ mentions  «The Japanese fought honorably, and fought honorably to their code». Of every ten Japanese military servicemen, nine of them died as a result of this encounter which shows the commitment of the Japanese to defend this island. In “Image 1” it is visible how small is the island, and how far away is from mainland Japan, around 12.000 kilometers. Mentioning the distance shows that even though the land is far from the mainland still Japanese soldiers fought heavily to maintain the integrity of the island. Around 30.000 soldiers died till American troops could take the island for 5 miles of territory.

Talking about the importance of this war, while looking at the history of the time, this war doesn’t seem to be a war turning point, but the intensity, the nature of the conflict that is associated with that island gives great importance and the credibility to the images and films, created based on this war as part of American’s history from the World War II. 

Around 27.000 soldiers and military servicemen were injured or died in this conflict the Japanese side shared 22.000 of them, and only 1.000 military servicemen survived. this war, raised an important question which was Japanese fight like this for a small island, what would they do for their main island?

Gaining control of the island was important for the United States for various factors. The first was for setting up a base for American (airstrips) aircraft B-29 for bombing Japan’s main islands. After World War I, Americans spent 50% more budget for the B-29 aircraft project compared to the Manhattan Project. The reason was that if a bomber was in crisis going back to its main airstrips after the raid, Mount Suribachi was somewhere that it could land. So it was a forward base and a safety net base when the craft were working to the extent of their range. In short, Americans were looking to have a long reach while attacking Japan directly. 

In the article “Among the Americans Who Served on Iwo Island, Uncommon Valor Was a Common Virtue” was mentioned: 

«Historians described U.S. forces’ attack against the Japanese defense as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.”  In the end, Iwo Jima was won not only by the fighting spirit of the Marines, but by the meticulous planning and support provided by the Navy and Army through supply efforts, medical care, and air and naval gunfire.» 

The Movie Flags of our Fathers

Flags of our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood and was released on 20th October 2006 in USA, is an adoption from the book Flags of Our Fathers, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers. The main plot of the movie is about three soldiers who survived a battle – here Iwo Jima’s battle- and raised the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during the World War II, and after returning from the battle, the government uses them as “ heroes” to sell war bonds while they suffer from survivor’s guilt. This movie is the sequel of another movie by the same director with the title Letters from Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood in this movie, Flags of Our Fathers, sheds a unique insight into the reality of the war and the untold stories of the American military during World War II. He touches the reality of the politics of American government towards its own people, how they manipulating the public’s idea about the war which was still happening to be able to raise money and sell more bonds to support their military campaign against Japan. In this movie there are several important questions that the director tries to provoke them in audience’s mind. As mentioned before regarding this battle, there exist different important points such as the image flag raising on Mount Suribachi that there always was the idea of have being staged, not being the first flag, also the vital fact about the war that the American government were loosing the public support of the war, they desperately needed to raise money to be able to continue their attacks. In the movie also another fact is visible that for Clint Eastwood is important how the idea of public, the government and the military, were towards native Americans, even though the Native Americans were fighting for their country and sacrificing their lives for their country side by side the others, which I will discuss in-depth while I analyze the image of flag raising.

When it comes to talking and analyzing a movie, it is important to focus on different aspects of it and also look at the connection between these different aspects. For example it is important if the directors chooses to use the soundtrack in their films , how they decide to form different type of mise-en-scène, the post-production process or how their coexisting forms the final outcome.  

In one of the interviews of Clint Eastwood about his movie, Flags of Our Fathers 2006, he explains his decision of not using colors correction like the most Hollywood movies. He emphasizes that he didn’t want to glorify the war and he thought that with correcting the colors especially in the battle scenes, using more popular music and soundtrack, and also changing his methods of cinematography it would completely  change the result and transfer the movie from something that uses documented as backup to something that is mainly for entertaining purposes and just selling in cinemas. That is the reason he says I didn’t want to glamorize the war: 


«[…] Most of the films, I like mute colors depending on the mood you trying to set, in this particular movie, I just felt that the various present day, bond drive time period, war time period, all had their own look so to speak war is not a glamorous event, even thought it not […] I just didn’t want to glamorize it like Wizard of Oz , I wanted to be more of what it is»

It is important to mention that Flags of Our Fathers focuses on the side of the war how American government used an iconic picture, in this case the Rosenthal’s photograph “The Flag Raising” to provoke a feeling in the public for supporting the war and also contribute more to the war and for this reason Clint Eastwood emphasizes on how authorities try to sell war bond to the public regardless of the lies they are telling them or how they behave with the soldiers who survived from that war.

In the next paragraphs of this essay, I will discuss about the photograph by J. Rosenthal and I will singled out some of the important reasons of why the image Flag Raising (Image 2) became iconic in American history. In this movie we will see why it is important to have an iconic image in a specific period of time, and how it can be used as tools or even propaganda tools for the authorities to benefit from them.

The Images of Flags On Mount Suribachi

Rosenthal, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, said: 

«Had I posed that shot, I would, of course, have ruined it. I’d have picked fewer men . . . I would have also made them turn their heads so that they could be identified for A.P. members throughout the country, and nothing like the existing picture would have resulted.»

The accusation was a posed photograph (Image 2) at the time that Rosenthal took it. One fact about this photograph is when the associated press received the image and then distributed it, Rosenthal didn’t make the decision about what was printed. The debate in America at the time was that they posed that photograph, and Rosenthal while answering to this was thinking about the photo which is known as the Gung Ho photograph (Image 4) where after the flag had been raised, he lined up the troops and took a reference photograph of them celebrating that particular event. So it came through as if the photographer had approved the posing not knowing that the preliminary photograph, the actual flag-raising itself, was the one that had been carried on the U.S media in such details. 

At the time of the raising of the flag, there were 4 photographers taking pictures. The important fact about this photo (Image 2) known as Raising the Flag was that also at this time, the war was still going on, while fact, it was on the forth day of the conflict and there was the better part of a month of fighting still going on. The picture was signaling the final victory and America as geographic dominance on one of the most prominent points of the regime at the time. There could be used one of the scene from the movie as an example: In the middle of the movie Flags of Our Fathers, there is a scene which Clint Eastwood used voice over to give some information about the history and the events at the time. The voice over is saying:” Everybody who saw the picture thought planting the flag meant victory. That is all they wanted to know. Victory. Within a few weeks of that picture being taking half of the man in it were dead.” 

There was also the replacement of the flag and maybe in the context of first, having a larger flag put up, and second the retrieved first flag would then become a memento. So here comes the question: does it dull the importance of the image, firstly that it is not the victory moment? No. The fact that it is a battle still to be completed and at least one interpretation of the image implies the battle is finished. Secondly, was it a posed image? No. In this image, there is an interaction between the camera and the subject. By looking at the image (Image 2), the subjects are all facing away, so this gives it credence as reportage, this is in the process. It is not like they stopped and held the flag at that degree so they could take the snap. And thirdly, does it matter that it is the first or the second flag raising? There were photographs of the first flag raising, but they don’t carry the same emotional weight as that taken by Joe Rosenthal. So it is the moment, the time, and the composition. It is important while analyzing an iconic image, to consider what was happening before and after the photo was photographed. In this case, we can’t talk about capturing the moment and what was that read into it was an enormous degree of sentiment after what it be along and attracted war across the Pacific. So it is the combination of factors, but it is important  to be aware that this was not the only photograph taken, or the only flag raising, because the question that does it diminish the impact of the photograph, it does not. 

Going on the depth of the specific time of taking the photos, there are several other images from that event which possibly all had their impact but they are not as famous as Rosenthal’s. 

Focusing on Rosenthal’s image, a Pulitzer prize-winning image, several commentators have chosen to raise a controversial note about Rosenthal’s flag-raising photograph. Was it a stage photograph? Was it the first flag-raising? Was it at the completion of the battle? 

As mentioned before the image of the flag raising, was in fact the second flag raising at Mount Suribachi. At the time Rosenthal was working for Associate Press, and he was on the battlefield to cover the battle for US media at the time. An important fact about this image is that there are actually several different images of the raising of the old glory of the US flag on Mt Suribachi and can be mentioned as follows: First was Luo Lowery, who was working for Leatherneck Magazine, a service magazine at the time, and he captured the first flag raising, Second was Bob Campbell, a combat photographer who also captured both flags and the third was Sergeant Bill Genaust, he was a cine photographer that ascended Mount Suribachi along with the US Marines, he also was talking film at the same time that other photographers including Rosenthal were taking photos. and the last one was Joe Rosenthal himself who captured the second flag-raising. Because of the position of the cine camera and Rosenthal’s camera, it is possible to get a kind of stereoscopic view of the flag raising. So there is a series of possible images from the time of the war in 1945 that are well-known and accessible by people that might have made an impact, and it’s maybe happen chance that the one that was widely used, was the one selected, Rosenthal’s Image. 

In this century, iconic can be overused as a superlative, and it might be correct to describe this image as iconic. For instance as a reference, one of the marine colonel at the time said: “said, the marines will last 500 years from the basis of the momentum carried by this image.”


As mentioned before, when Rosenthal responded to the question of whether he posed the photo or not and confirmed it, he was referring to The Gung-Ho shot. This photograph in which the marines who raised the flag plus the rest of the crew that scaled Mount Suribachi at that particular time is triumphalist, in fact, the argument is that never received the same prominence as Rosenthal’s Flag Raising photograph because it is staged. It is clearly a case that the individuals are interacting with the camera, they have been asked to stand in that particular position, and to a certain degree, it is after the event, the flag is up. It is clear that it has a composition, and allows the individuals concerned to act in a non-spontaneous manner. But the debate is why the Marines would want to show a degree of triumphalism while at the time the war was still going on. 

Bob Campbell, was another photographer who was there for both flag-raising. He took a photo while one flag was going up and the other one coming down. The reason why Campbell’s photograph is important starts to work into the authenticity of Rosenthal’s iconic image. Because it can be seen that having a second flag being raised, provoke the question of whether we are creating an image artificially or not. It doesn’t have emotionally so much immediacy. While we are trying to assess the importance of images in this regard, by seeing The Two Flags image, we start to think what was the background of the image, and what happened before and after that. Why there is two flags and why one of them is being planted and the other one is being taken down? 

Rosenthal’s Flag Raising Images As An Iconic Image

There exists a wide range of interpretations regarding the reasons why this image (Image 2) is iconic. I want to analyze this image based on the subjective and compositions point of view. Rosenthal himself in one of his speeches says that he doesn’t know why this image is so powerful but maybe analyzing it might give some ideas about its power. 

First, the rubble and debris in the immediate foreground and the soldiers trying to put up the flag give an idea of struggling under adversity. It can mean we have put a huge amount of effort for passing and overcoming these barriers to be able to reach this point to plant our flag, it wasn’t an easy thing to do, nothing can stop us.

The second characteristic is that the flag is not completely in an upright position. It means that we are still not at the end of the war. There is still a way to go but we are trying to reach victory. This is an anticipation of triumph about to be achieved and it is important while we are comparing this image with the Gung Ho image that the flag is completely upright and because of this difference it could talk in its own way to the American public.

Third is that we don’t see any faces. We can not single out the soldiers, we don’t know their background, who they are, how old they are, or what were their soldier’s jobs before the war started, and might be important that we don’t see their faces to see what are their ethnicities.

 I want to use two specific scenes from the movie that it is important while discussing this point. The background is that there were two flag raising, as mentioned before, when the image of the second flag raising arrived in the United States, it provoked a huge sense of patriotism, and the government at the time realized that they could use this picture and try to encourage the major part of the American people to buy the war bonds. So the government saw the opportunity and decided to return the soldiers in the picture of the second flag raising and bring them back so that they could participate in many events like recreating the moment of the flag raising on American soil and giving speeches to the public to convince them to invest on the war campaign against Japan. The problem is that three out of six soldiers in the picture died at the time that the picture was circulating in the United States, and the authorities ask Rene, one of the soldiers in the picture, to give them the names of the  marines who were in the picture, and Rene doesn’t know who was participating in the flag raising event. The character of Ira Hayes ( Played by Adam Beach ) is a native American soldier who will be forced to accept and declare to the public his participation in the flag-raising while in the first place, he rejects his participation in the event and says he was one of the soldiers who raised the first flag. But in the end, he will find himself in a position in which he realizes that he doesn’t have any other option to accept and says he was there. During the film for the first time that Rene ( Played by Jesse Bradford ) tells Ira that the government wants to return the soldiers who raised the second flag, Adam refuses and tells Rene that he wasn’t there and he doesn’t want to go back, and after a small fight Rene refers to Ira as “ Redskin” (Image 6). Also in another scene, while they are back in their country, there is a scene where Ira is fighting with local police while he is drunk and he says that the reason he got into the fight with the bartender is that the bar owner didn’t serve him and the bartender says: “I don’t make the rules. We don’t serve Indians.” (Image 7) Now going back to the image, here the image opens the space for interpretation that the ethnicity is not important when it comes to fighting against an outside enemy, and defending our land, we fight for one goal regardless of our ethnicities. It symbolizes anonymous heroes, the effort of all in military service towards a goal. 

The next point is that this image is an image about cooperation. There are six men working together in concert, they don’t have all the same roles. So it shows a communal effort and is symbolic of the sacrifices at home and the dangers and trepidation faced by those in the field. It embodied this idea that we’re trying to get the job done together. I want to use a scene from the movie as a contradicting example. In the scene of the battle on the coast, we see two soldiers carrying dead bodies, and the camera cuts to their perspective from their point of view we see the waves washing out the American soldier’s dead bodies (Image 8) and also a close up of a thank running over another body without even noticing or changing its way. Connect it with the previous scene about the day when the soldiers are heading to the island and waiting for the American air forces to bombard the island and clear the position for the Marine Corps, in this scene one of the soldiers falls from a ship into the sea and non of the ships stops for him, and the other soldier on the ship says: “ they are not gonna stop, non of them are, they can’t” and another soldier responds: “so much for no man left behind.” These two scenes and the quote refer to the empty slogan of the American military that no man would left behind but here there is a criticism of the reality in which man will left behind unless they are lucky and they are not the priority. The priority is the war and just winning the war. 

Another important point is patriotism associated with the flag and victory. The American flag, no need to mention the connection of the American flag to the American population, and how Americans do respect the vast majority, and the end victory is implied it is not the end of the war and it is the 5th day of the war but it is symbolic of perhaps a small triumphant along the way but it is not the final conclusion of the battle. 

The last characteristic is the singularity of purpose, we have an image capturing six men doing one thing, they have a clear focus and they want to get the job done. They are all playing their parts and their objective is we are going to finish this one and go to the next goal. 

The 7th War Bond Drive

America is widely regarded as having gotten out of the Great Depression, as a result of government expenditure associated with the Second World War. Paul Samuelson the Nobel prize-winning economist, Predicted towards the end of 1945 that the American economy would immediately go back into recession. The point that federal government expenditure went back to a peacetime footing. The amount of money that the American federal government spent, on lend-lease between April of 1941, and September of 1945 was equivalent to the entire federal expenditure from 1933 to 1939. So just put this in context. America at the time was giving its allies, resources, food supplies, and munitions, over four and a four-year period, which is equivalent to everything the federal government spent from 1933 to 1939. In a time where we have the first concerted efforts at deficit finance in America, it wasn’t deliberate. Roosevelt as president was implicitly a balanced-budget politician. But everything that was spent in those six years was equivalent to the amount the Americans gave away to its allies. 

The American government slowly came around to the idea of moving towards deficit finance as a deliberate policy. John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory was published in 1936. By 1941, both Britain and America, in the way that they managed their federal budgets, had accepted Keynesian principles. The idea of estimating the size of the economy, working out how much the government could legitimately borrow or transfer to public expenditure in time of war, and in Britain’s case, was critically important. So, in April of 1941, coinciding with the beginning of lend-lease, the first Keynes was born as Keynesian budget in Britain. The idea of broad Keynesian principles and planning helped manage the expenditure during the Second World War. For instance in 1945 sovereign debt in Britain, was equivalent to two and a half times the size of the economy. What Britain owed in 1945 as a result of the Second World War was two and half times the value of all transactions that took place in that year.


So considering all these points, the American government needed to persuade the public in general to once more, transfer their private funds into government coffers, by buying war bonds. This was the seventh drive and the aim was to raise about 14 billion American dollars. The federal budget in 1945 was coming in at about $56 billion. So 14 billion is coming in at just about a quarter of total expenditure. This was the most successful, war bond drive of the Second World War, and many have attributed this to the way that the publicity around the flag raising at Iwo Jima was put forward. 

How do you motivate a population who to a certain degree was war-weary, and were not directly affected in terms of combat by the war, to commit their funds to that effort once more, this is another way in which that image became popularized and embedded in the American consciousness. For instance in the scene where the head of the Treasury Department of The United States, Bud Gurber, and the three soldiers after they return to their country, Bub is giving the outlines of what the soldiers must say during their speech: ” I got some briefing sheets for you here. Just some simple things we want you to say, mostly buy bonds, can’t say that too often […] we got a hell of a lot of money to raise. Not a lot of time“ 


In Conclusion, by examining the Battle of Iwo Jima through the lens of media representation, we can understand the relationship between historical events, visual narratives, and collective memory. Through iconic photographs and cinematic interpretations in this case “Flags of Our Fathers,” directed by Clint Eastwood, we tried to understand the complexities of war propaganda, the manipulation of public perception, and the sacrifices of those involved in the conflict. 

The photograph by Joe Rosenthal capturing the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi stands as a symbol of struggle, cooperation, and patriotism. It has the ability of encapsulating the spirit of American Determination amidst adversity regardless of the controversies surrounding its authenticity and timing. This image became a tool of war propaganda, used by the American government to rally public support and drive participation in the 7th War Bond Drive. 

Through analysis of media, including photographs, films, and historical accounts, we gain insight into the multifaceted nature of conflict representation. The Battle of Iwo Jima serves as an example for exploring the intersection of media, history, and memory, highlighting the important impact of visual narratives on shaping our understanding of history.


Bradley, James and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers, London, Pimlico, 2006

Eastwood, Clint, Flags of Our Fathers, London, Warner Home Video, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers Movie Interview – Clint Eastwood Interview (Part Two):

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