Flags of Our Fathers

Chances are that the names Jack Bradley, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, René Gagnon, and Mike Strank aren't familiar to you. But you've seen them. They're the five marines and one Navy corpsman who, on February 23, 1945, were photographed raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. That photo inspired a nation, and served as the model for the largest bronze sculpture in the world: the Marine Corps Memorial -- one that is special to me as a former marine. As a new book, Flags of Our Fathers, points out, it's also a reminder of the importance of virtue to the well-being of a nation. The men's names don't appear on the memorial. Instead, visitors read that "uncommon valor was a common virtue" on Iwo Jima. Truer words were never spoken. In the nearly 2,700 months since our independence, one month has seen the most decorations for valor: February, 1945 -- the month of Iwo Jima. Jack Bradley's son, James, grew up knowing very little about his dad's experiences on Iwo Jima. And it wasn't until his father's funeral that he learned that his dad had won the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest decoration for valor. It was awarded after the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. This experience led Bradley to find out everything he could about the men who served there -- a search that resulted in this book. In it, Bradley tells the story of his dad and the five others who raised the flag. And he probes what it was that produced such bravery. What Bradley learned surprised him. Instead of focusing on the "uncommon valor," he realized that he should emphasize the "common virtue." These young men weren't intrinsically braver than previous or subsequent generations. They weren't nobler. What produced their actions was their common decency. And that came from a combination of culture, faith, and upbringing that made them, by the age of eighteen, men of real character. This wonderful book reminds us that character and virtue are not merely private concerns. They affect our country's well-being and, in the case of these marines, its very survival. What's more, as Flags of Our Fathers tells us, the qualities on display at Iwo Jima had to be developed. They were the product of creeds, family, and culture -- a culture that placed a higher value on duty and obligation than on self-fulfillment, self-expression, or self-esteem. It's hard to deny that the opposite is true of our own culture. So, we're left with an unsettling question: Would young Americans today produce the kind of "common virtue" or "uncommon valor" displayed at Iwo Jima? There are many fine young men and women in the Armed Forces today, but it's still a tough question because many of our neighbors believe that questions of virtue and character are irrelevant. Well, they're wrong, and they ought to read this book to find out why. Historian Stephen Ambrose calls Flags of Our Fathers "the best battle book I ever read," and he adds that the stories of these six men filled him with awe. For all of us, it's a reminder that real success isn't measured in dollars and cents but by the selfless virtues and deeply held beliefs that give life its meaning. It's a reminder as well how much we owe to the "common virtue" of those who have gone before us. For further reading: Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.


Chuck Colson



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