When a Good War Story Goes Bad

The recent revelation in the New York Times that author James Bradley is now convinced that his father is not in the iconic Joe Rosenthal photo of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima brings to mind our many comments on the importance of good story telling in public relations. Especially the part about how it should be a true story.

The World War II photo of five marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi was an instant balm on America’s wounds of war. And it has been subject to both celebration and scrutiny ever since. Joe Rosenthal was both awarded a Pulitzer Prize and accused of staging the scene. While it was—and is—a symbol of victory and patriotism, the fact is, the photo was used to illustrate a story that was a public relations boon to the U.S. war effort.

The photo, appearing immediately on front pages around the world, took on a life of its own. It became a stamp, a movie, a memorial, and it led to other books and other movies. Among them, James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers. One of the fathers in his story is his own, John Bradley, a decorated corpsman who performed heroically at Iwo Jima, and who did raise a flag there. Apparently, just not the one in the now famous photo.

Was there malice here? To say the scene was chaotic would be an understatement. There were multiple flags, flag raisings, photos, and multiple teams of men involved. More likely this was a rush for good news in the face of misery with marginal communication from a war zone. The world ran with what it thought was the story. For seven decades.

The truth of who’s in the photo doesn’t unravel the narrative of Iwo Jima. The Marines really did win that battle and at a heavy cost of 26,000 casualties and nearly seven thousand killed in hellacious fighting.

While there is a slight pang in realizing that something so iconic and foundational in the national collective memory isn’t exactly what we thought it was, it’s nothing like the betrayal felt at the outright lies put forth about the death of Army Ranger (and former NFL player) Pat Tillman in Afghanistan or the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq. Those were lies, calculated to shove aside a barrage of bad news stories and shore up public support for wars that were growing ever more complex.

The thing about lies in a public relations campaign? They always come to the fore.

At least as far back as Abraham Lincoln, our leaders have kept one eye on the battlefield and another on public relations, understanding that if the latter went south, there’d be no support for the former.

A lot can be forgiven in the fog of war. But if the truth is clear in the light of day, it has to be told.

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