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May 09, 2007

Iwo Jima, Kansas

edited for content 2:36 pm EST


Oh, the picture of patriotism....

This color shot -- photographed yesterday in Greensburg, Kansas -- is one of the more editorially-deceptive newswire photos I've seen in a while.  In the photo, Kansas National Guardsman and postal workers raise an American flag over a U.S. Post Office destroyed by Friday's killer tornado.

The image becomes even more duplicitous in light of the pissing contest that broke out the same day between the White House and Kansas' (Democratic) Governor Kathleen Sebelius.  Addressing recovery efforts following the disaster, the Governor attacked the Administration for weakening federal disaster relief by railroading employing the National Guard in Iraq.

Said the Governor:

"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees, and helicopters that the response is going to be slower.... The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."

Evidenced by the bubbles, I doubt you can look at this image without also conjuring American troops planting the flag on Iwo Jima.  In the simplest terms, however, the connection creates something of a whitewash.  At face value, the patriotic reflex is that, when the troops are needed, you can always count on them.

The twist, however, involves the true story behind political role of Joe Rosenthal's famous Iwo Jima photo (b&w above).  Rosenthal's picture was actually a PR recreation staged With his version in hand, to the government employed the photo to make the WW II struggle against the Japanese look that much more impressive -- and fully-equipped. 

Most people who see this newswire pic probably wouldn't think past its patriotic value, and the uncomplicated credit paid to (federal, as well as state) first-responders.  Any reading more historically true to the marketing of the Iwo Jima shot, however, tilts the Governor's way.  In those terms, this "uplifting" message from the heartlands is essentially a gift to the Government and a free piece of propaganda.

For example, who's to say -- if the Administration hadn't turned the National Guard into the International Guard -- that there wouldn't have been three, four or even five guardsman hoisting old glory, instead of just two?

(image: Karen Wagner/AP. Greensburg, Kansas.  May 8, 2007. via YahooNews)


Everything you say here is spot on EXCEPT the bit about the Rosenthal picture being a PR recreation. That's a myth that has unfortunately been represented in too many places. It WAS the second flag raising, BUT it was not a recreation designed for PR purposes. Depending on who you want to believe it was either put up because the Marines wanted to retain the "original" flag OR because an Admiral wanted the troops at sea to be able to see it and the original flag was too small. That Rosenthal got the picture was almost dumb luck. Robert Hariman and I discuss it as some length in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal-Democracy (University of Chicago) due out in June 2007.

I read James Bradley's "Flags of our Fathers" and his documentation of the event states that Rosenthal's pic WAS dumb luck. The first raising was the "claiming" pic which only the soldiers on the island saw. The second flag going up was the PR event. Page 211:

"Rosenthal spotted the movement and grabbed his camera. Genaust [fellow cameraman], about three feet from Resenthal, asked: "I'm not in your way, am I, Joe?" "Oh, no," Rosenthal answered. As he later remembered, "I turned from him and out of the corner of my eye I said, 'Hey, Bill, there it goes!'"
He swung his camera and clicked off a frame. In that same instant the flagpole rose upward in a quick arc. The banner, released from Mike's grip, fluttered out in the strong wind. Rosenthal remembers: "By being polite to each other we both damn near missed the scene. I swung my camera around and held it until I could guess that this was the peak of hte action, and shot."

The entire next chapter, Myths, is worth checking the book out of the library for the read. I read in this chapter a clear indictment of the lazy, slip shod reporting that took a moment in time, blew it all out of proportion, and used it to sell war bonds. I almost typed war of agression; the connection to today's media steam rolling of facts in favor of a political ideal is too clear to miss.

Speaking of missing, I missed the fact that there are uniformed guys lifting the Kansas flagpole. I just saw the guy with the black t-shirt and figured he was a passerby, as Doc Bradley was according to his son.

I've very surprised someone who knows as much about the semantics of photos would have fallen for the urban legend about the Rosenthal photo being staged.

But if the actual, non-PR version of the story is used, then the posting makes no sense. Never let the real world get in the way of a column.

The Greensburg flag pole looks heavier than the Iwo Jima flag pole, but there are the same amount of soldiers raising both. The Greensburg crew could probably use an extra person or two to better hoist the thing but they don't have the personnel, so they have to spread out and make it work.

I don't know why the Nat'l Guard would feel compelled to raise a flagpole when all the other rubble has to be cleared still. Maybe the idea is to inspire recovery because it's a mandate of our national identity. Maybe they just saw the photographers looking for action and gave them a warm, fuzzy, patriotic photo to reflect the community's pride in rebuilding.

I think this photo is less politicized than any photos you will see of Bush touring the disaster site.

Two thoughts/observations (1) saw the video of the kansas flag raising, the reality is that is as far as they could lift it due to the tornado having bent it down...not really a flag raising then plus what does it say that this moment is also about 'not getting it up'? and (2) urban myths aside re iwo jima...if I recall my history, most of those men in that photo died within days as a result of further battles.

There are two points here. The first is whether or not the Rosenthal images is of a "restaging" of the flag raising for PR purposes. The evidence here is pretty clear that it was not. The second is whether or not the photograph was subsequently used for (by some accounts shameful) PR purposes to sell War Bonds and more. The answer here is that it was. Images like the one from Kansas draw off of the recognition and emotional resonance of the original. But, of course, that such usage (or "visual" quoting) isn't always done for patriotic purposes. Think of the many parodies where there are cynical substitutions for the flag (say, the "golden arches") or the flag raisers (a cartoon from a few years back that put the heads/faces of Tom Browkaw, Ben Affleck, Tom Hanks, etc. into the place of the flag raisers). The power of the image is clear and pronunced -- and often problematic. BUT it is a mistake to think that Rosenthal was complicit in this or that the taking of the picture per se was part of the PR campaign in any particular sense (beyond the sense in which all war pictures were taken in some measure to docuement and promote the war effort).

This morning, it seems, speed won out over rigor.  Reviewing what I wrote (now amended), my overall purpose was to emphasize the employment of the Iwo Jima image by the government for political ends, not to question Rosenthal's role or integrity. 

Special thanks to John for your comments and presence here.  Of course, I appreciate and share your emphasis on the social vitality of the journalistic image, and look forward to your book.

This photo did NOT recall the Iwo Jima image for me at all -- because the WWII one involved what was obviously a liftable pole. The Kansas one looks like clean-up after a flagpole was felled by the storm. Rather appropriate to our current condition.

No one would ever raise a flag on a pole like the Kansas one. Even a propagandist would be defeated by gravity.

Well, I wonder if anyone under 40, say, would have that connection to the Iwo Jima photo. Except, perhaps, professionals or those (like us) overly interested in the photographic image. I wish The Bag had posted the Greensburg photo first and by itself, then later the Iwo Jima shot. Then I could be more certain of my first impressions. By posting the Iwo Jima first, The Bag almost sets us up to see the comparison. However, I still think the Greensburg shot is a pale imitation, at best. The two guys on the right seem strained to be in the photo, not participatory at all. Further, it looks as though the flag is being dragged along the rubble, very not allowed. My second thought was WTF are they doing raising the damn flag over the rubble of a post office when they should be clearing the rubble looking for any more survivors? Or at least clearing the rubble. A total waste of time!

All in all, a pathetic attempt to provide a cheap shot for a cheap CIC (aka the commander guy) of a cheap imitation of an iconic photo. Whatever the origin of that Iwo Jima photo was.

The flag raising at Iwo Jima is still fresh in everyone's minds from Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Father's" movie.

I'm not really buying that it's deceptive... Basically the flag is a symbol of America. The tornados blew down the flag down they're putting it back up.

I wonder if we read it differently because it's reversed, left to right.

The first picture is really a great photo. It's about courage and triumph. The second photo there isn't a war going on so it's more about just cleaning stuff up. But that takes a certain kind of courage too, and it has to be done regardless.

"My second thought was WTF are they doing raising the damn flag over the rubble of a post office when they should be clearing the rubble looking for any more survivors? Or at least clearing the rubble. A total waste of time!"

This is an apt comment. And I think it probably points to the sense in which there is a powerful emotional resonance with and for the original image. Remember, too that when the flag went up at Iwo Jima very little had yet been accomplished on Iwo Jima and one could have made something on the order of the same comment ... why this, why here, why now? DItto with the firefighters at the WTC. That it is happening under the circumstances points to its power and importance.

And yes, there is something of a generational effect with images of this sort. But remember that the Iwo Jima image is frequently cited as THE most reproduced photo ever. And while I'm usually skeptical of such claims, I've yet to see anyone actually dispute this one. So if its not THE most reproduced, it is certainly a contender for the title. And if you don't think more recent generations recognize the aesthetic form (if not the deeply patriotic sensibility of The Greatest Generation) then remember that The Simpsons feature versions of the image on at least three different occasions (with one occasion having Homer eat a potato paste version of the flag raising -- what else could he do with such a profanity -- that has been bequeathed to him by Marge's late Aunt). The key point here is not that everyone will actually agree on the specific meaning -- should we treat the image piously or cynically -- but that it has a profound degree of recognition t/o the culture. It is, as it were, a genre (or at least a form) unto itself ... and that's a good enough reason to see it mimiced so often.

>> first thoughts: war in the pacific, war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terrorism, a war on a tornado ?
'Whats wrong with Kansas'- Thomas Frank

So, mistakes were made. Happens all the time.

By one account, however, the Iwo Jima photo isn't (so much) about war, but about nation-building, teamwork, sacrifice to a common cause, etc. Notice, for example, how in the Iwo Jima image the weapons of war are barely noticeable, what we notice is folks working together in a situation of individual sacrifice. Now this is not the only way to read and understand the image BUT it is oftentimes read and interpreted in such a register ... and its all there. So the litany of "wars" leading to "tornado" does suggest something of an irony, but only if one limits themselves to one narrow sense of the photo's meaning/function within public culture. Other transcriptions identify other possibilities. AND THIS, by the way, is one of the things that makes this photo and other iconic photographs so terribly powerful over long periods of time ... its openness to a range of meanings. I'm not saying it can mean anything, but I also don't think we need to limit it to the notion of war per se either ... or at least culturally we've not done that in the past.

Why is it that many of the lead photos published on this story and other recent disasters have included the American flag? Is this something that is recent (post 911) or have similar disasters in the past evoked the same "patriotic" response. I'm not sure you can find the same sort of ubiquitous photographic cliche in disasters striking other countries. Just wondering.

I noticed that too, Jay. But now that I think about it, I don't think you find many homes flying flags in other countries anyway. I think flags are seen at borders and government offices, on ships, etc... not so much on individual homes and shops. You see more on the annual "National Day" maybe. Anyone know of other countries where it's like the U.S.?

Hockey games bring out hard core flag wavers in Canada.
What really puzzles me is the relentless proliferation of the stars and stripes pin on the business attire of my southern neighbors.

All conservatives have their sacred symbols. After World War II in Germany, people were living on the street and in tents but the first things that had to be rebuilt and restored, at great cost and expense, were the German churches (remember that the 114 biggest towns and cities were all 85% to almost 100% destroyed). Homeless refugees from the East were flooding in...but the symbols had to be rebuilt. Later this church rebuilding campaign came to be associated with the CDU (right wing party). It became a source of some bitterness to the younger generation and the left wingers, who thought that human needs should have come first.

There are "patriots" who would step over human casualties to pick up the flag. We all know "heroic" stories about the drummer boy who gets shot trying not to let the flag fall or whatever it is. It's stupid to some of us, but there's a class of human beings who need the symbols. They will die for that if not for anything else. Just wave the symbol, and they'll come running after whoever is invoking it. Hence the association with conservatives.

The rubble has to be cleared, but the flag cannot be left in the dirt. So that's why they're fussing with it. It looks like the raising may have started on the flag far end and then walked toward the base. But the pole cannot be raised. You'd need equipment for that (which they don't have!) and it's probably bent anyway. What they should do it remove the flag from the pole and fold it up. Anything other than that is a little ridiculous.

Re the ubiquitousness of the flag, I don't know how it is in England, but Eddy Izzard has a great routine about their flag, i.e., when they took over a country they'd ask 'well, do you have a flag' and the response was usually no, so the Brits would plant their flag and take over the country. Much funnier from his lips. I wonder if a lot of countries are more flag conscious now because it has become their symbol at the UN. And does national pride come before or after the adoption of a flag?

Perhaps all the current flag-waving in this country is a form of mass hysteria whipped up by the right and the MSM. People who have nothing to hang on to, gravitate to the flag in times of supposed national peril. It then becomes a substitute for reason and rational thinking.

regarding flags and other things to identify with, I found this short wiki blurb interesting,

The Iwo Jima flag-raising picture has always looked like a posed shot to me, if for no other reason than it doesn't take four guys to hold up a skinny metal pole. Maybe two, at most. But maybe it was a group solidarity thing, where the other guys wanted to help even though it wasn't necessary.

And regarding the Kansas flagpole - those things are hollow, and not very heavy. Those three or four guys could lift it easy.

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