- The Ghosts of Iwo Jima
This monograph actually becomes two books in one: first debunking the conventional justifications of the bloodiest battle in U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) history, and then detailing the mythology and attendant cult created from the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi within the overall culture of the USMC and, in no small measure, the United States itself. Both of these themes have merit and the reader will find no disappointment in the coverage.
SMH members will recall a lively exchange Burrell had after the publication of his Moncado Award winning article in 2004, when an air force officer on the Joint Staff College faculty took issue with general and specific aspects of his thesis. (See Robert S. Burrell, "Breaking the Cycle of the Iwo Jima Mythology: A Strategic Study of Operation Detachment," Journal of Military History 68 (October 2004): 1143–86; Brian Hadley, "The Myth of Iwo Jima: A Rebuttal" Journal of Military History 69 (July 2005): 801– 809, including Burrell's response.) Burrell apparently found no value in the critique and his book-length version remains vulnerable to the same charges. Although he cites many an archival collection, it appears from the footnotes that his "extensive primary source research" centers upon the microfilmed Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: 1941–1945, the Nimitz papers held at the Naval Historical Center, the V Amphibious Corps after action report and a handful of other documents. This might prove sufficient for an operational narrative of the campaign, but Burrell has set his sights higher, on the determination of strategy in the Great Pacific War.
In brief, he takes pains to show that the value gained from Iwo did not warrant the ultimate sacrifice in blood and, most importantly, that this could have been deduced at the time. He attacks the old saw of "for every casualty, an airman was saved" by showing that most of the B-29 landings made after the battle were not emergency landings that perforce saved the air crews. He further charges that Iwo never performed adequately as a base for fighter escort missions, because the fighters lacked the performance and reliability to perform these missions. Yet in a footnote, he recognizes some of the criticism [End Page 1297] in the JMH exchange, writing "It is true that fighter operations significantly improved when the weather cleared up in the summer of 1945. . . . I have decided to rely on the numbers that the official Army Air Forces history utilized for the sorties of April-June as most indicative of the VII Fighter Command's efforts" [reviewer italics]. In doing so, he exposes himself to charges of cooking the books in the same way as he impugns the motives of senior air force officers in claiming the strategic necessity of the Iwo seizure.
Burrell's workmanlike effort to assess the strategic value of a single island battle of the war may err in that so many islands "had" to be taken at one time or another, based upon what the soldiers and sailors thought they were doing at the time they were doing it, not on the basis of postmortem reasoning. One could equally charge that Betio/Tarawa, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and a half dozen other battles could have been avoided. Assessing the value of Iwo must also take into account the fact that a future blockade or invasion of Japan, most clearly in the offing at the time of the assault, would have benefited markedly from holding Iwo, both for the naval operations off Honshu as well as the principal invasion of the home islands planned at the Kanto Plain.
The second half of the book—assessing the mythology of Iwo and the iconic value of the flag raising—proves just as engaging. The number of flags carried in backpacks of marines during the Gulf Conflict of 1990–91 for possible blandishment and erection indicates the persistence of this element of lore. Unfortunately, Burrell...