American Flags And The Symbolism Within It
Forced to slog through volcanic ash, rock, and dead bodies, 30,000 marines made the trek to the beaches of Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. By noon, the volcano was isolated, but danger lurked at every turn; the Japanese were not just on Mount Suribachi, they were in it, attacking the Americans from every direction. The treacherous ascent of the volcano proved to be one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles of WWII. Filled with valor, several marines found a pipe amongst the wreckage and used it to raise the American flag with utmost pride and dignity.
Joe Rosenthal, a US marine photographer, heard soldiers were making the trek up the treacherous and rocky terrain which made up Mount Suribachi and decided to make the trek himself to capture the moment on camera.
Approaching the peak, Rosenthal was overwhelmed with emotions as he witnessed the second, massive American Flag being raised. Prior to this flag being raised a smaller one was put in place, but a commander told the soldiers it was far too small. The second American Flag left everyone in view of it awestruck, triggering whistles, gunfire, and celebration. Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time Magazine during WWII, wrote, “As we approached the beach about 11 o’clock somebody yelled, ‘Look, they’ve got the flag up on Mount Suribachi!’
It was a dramatic moment. It seemed that we could do anything if we could capture that vertical monstrosity at the south end of Iwo. Tears welled in the eyes of several Marines as they watched the little flag fluttering in the breeze.” Rosenthal’s photo, while fortuitously timed, has emerged as an inspirational and iconic representation of the heroism of WWII soldiers. The photograph went on to win a Pulitzer prize in 1945 and is considered one of the most famous images of all time. The elements of the photograph come together to create a masterpiece which conveys unity, strength, and victory all in one.
Rosenthal wanted the American Flag to be the center of attention in his photo and he achieves his goal flawlessly. When looking at the photograph, our eyes are immediately drawn to the Flag because of the way the photo is structured. The flag and it’s long pole show upward movement and strength. Once down but now being raised by soldiers, the flag demonstrates their conquest of the battlefield. Rosenthal captured the image at the perfect time, any earlier or later the image would be left without the strong diagonal structure of the pole. This perfect moment captured by Rosenthal encapsulated the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to get to this point in the battle and raised the morale of all Americans on the homefront by giving them a sense of hope.
The flag not only represents America’s victory over the Iwo Jima battlefield, but the lines of the flag itself create a triangular shape between the pole and the arms of the soldiers holding the pole. Triangles represent strength, harmony, and proportion; any weight placed on them is equally distributed amongst all sides. This speaks to the nature of the soldiers; they all carried the burden of war on their backs but distributed this burden equally amongst them. The triangle is a tremendous symbol of unity and strength amongst the soldiers, two of the biggest components necessary to eventually win the war.
Lacking planes, tanks, guns, and bullets, the blank background of the photograph enhances the action of the flag rising with no distractions. The light color stands in stark contrast to the dark color of the soldiers and flag, further attracting the eye to the focal point making the image even more powerful. Due to the hazy light overshadowing them, the soldiers are unable to be identified. However, their individual identities do not matter because they are all unified in one cluster fighting for one common goal. Their team work is evident in the photo as they appear as one single unit. The lighting and silhouette of the men is yet another way Rosenthal incorporates the theme of unity in his award winning photograph.
Rosenthal appears distant and safe from the action in his photograph. Unlike many wartime photos, the image lacks the gore and horror of war in the foreground. Rather, the Marines appear triumphantly atop the ash and rock of the volcano. By negating to include the signs of war in the foreground, Rosenthal captured an image that represented inevitable victory, something that all the other war time photos lacked. This gave the photo it’s awe filled and inspirational appearance.
Although the aesthetic power of Rosenthal’s image is undeniable, many critics argued that the image was misleading and staged. Editors of newspapers refused to put the image in their work. Daniel Longwell, an editor of the life magazine, stated “Suddenly I was confronted with the flag-raising picture.
My first thought was what a damned fool thing to do—they shouldn’t set that example to the other troops. This isn’t the Civil War in movies, the machine gun has been invented. I said that’s a posed picture.” Many others felt the same way as Longwell. How could a picture be taken with such flawless composition and not be staged? How could an image taken in the midst of war include no signs of blood or dead bodies? How was the perfect angle possible without signs of even a trembling hand? These were the questions that critics debated over. Regardless of people’s opinions on how the photograph was taken, there was no denying that the image boosted American morale. It inspired those on the homefront with a strong sense of hope for the victory to come.
Americans on the homefront were left inspired by a mere glance at the image, due to the strength, unity, and victory portrayed. The masterpiece turned weary and anxious Americans into recuperation. The inspiring effects of the image on Americans didn’t just end when WWII came to a close; those effects are still seen to this day.
An image of three New York firefighters raising an American Flag above the ruins left by the 9/11 attack closely resembles the flag raising on Mount Suribachi. Not only are the images similar in composition, the effects of the images on those who view them stir up similar emotions of hope and inspiration. The composition of Rosenthal’s masterpiece will not be forgotten, but will forever serve as an inspiration to all.
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