After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America's attitude toward the war changed; now Americans were involved in a "two-ocean war." However, Japan had been an important military power for decades, conquering Manchuria and China, using biological warfare to enact what its leaders saw as a divine right to conquer inferior races. Japan hoped to conquer all the European colonial empires in Asia to surround China and bring about its downfall to Japan. General Douglas MacArthur's lack of movement following the news from Pearl Harbor resulted in the bombing of his fleet of warplanes in the South Pacific by the Japanese, and MacArthur had to flee to Australia.
Though the American military was stunned, American citizens jumped at the chance to make sacrifices for their country. The Marines became an important tool in military strategy. Holland M. Smith, or “Howlin’ Mad,” developed the strategy of amphibious warfare for the Marines to master and carry out. The Marines made their mark on World War II on the island of Guadalcanal, where they defeated Japanese ground troops after abandonment by the US Navy. The American public viewed them as heroes, an image that would be developed and blown out of proportion by the media.
Meanwhile, the Japanese army was made up of "issen goren," which translates to "one yen, five rin," or the cost of mailing a draft-notice postcard. The idea of soldiers as expendable, fighting for the emperor and without an identity of their own, permeated the Japanese war mindset. The Japanese army operated under a bastardized version of Bushido, the ancient "Way of the Warrior." Surrender was for them the worst personal shame. In contrast, the boys recruited to the American military learned to lose their sense of self, but for the purpose of a team. Their individuality was "erased." The Marines learned that all other branches of the military were worthless compared to them, and that they had to earn their place among all the other great Marines.
Mike Strank enlisted in the Marines before America entered the war. Ira Hayes surprised his Pima tribe by enlisting in the Marines, since the Pima were a peaceful people. He wrote home about how much he enjoyed boot camp, and about how proud he was when he became a USMC Paratrooper. A little bit later, in the fall of 1942, Harlon Block enlisted with his entire Weslaco High football team, much to the chagrin of his mother, Belle. As a Seventh-Day Adventist, he could have been a conscientious objector, but chose instead to fight. Harlon, like Ira, became a paratrooper. After completing an apprenticeship in the mortuary arts, Jack Bradley decided to enlist in the Navy with his friend, Bob Connelly. He was assigned to the Oaknoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, as a nurse. Rene Gagnon enlisted at the age of seventeen in May 1943.
As members of the Raiders outfit in the Pacific, Mike Strank landed at Bougainville, the northernmost island in the Solomon island chain. Bradley describes the battle at Bougainville as "a wet hell." Ira Hayes and Harlon Block soon joined him there to fight the "unseen enemy." At about the same time that Mike, Ira, and Harlon were returning from Bougainville emotionally scarred, Franklin Sousley was in Marine boot camp in San Diego. Jack Bradley was transferred to Field Medical School to train to be a Marine corpsman, which meant that he would be headed to battle.
Ira, Mike, and Harlon returned home on furlough for a brief break from battle. Ira’s Pima tribe perceived him as having transformed into a man, but retaining his thoughtfulness and quiet demeanor. Mike, suffering from malaria, was convinced that his next battle would be his last, and told his family and friends that he would not be returning home. Likewise, Harlon told his girlfriend, Catherine Pierce, that he would not be coming back again. Franklin, also allowed a furlough, took his girlfriend, Marion Hamm out on a date and told her that he would return a hero.
Meanwhile, Howlin' Mad Smith visited Tarawa after a stunning victory by the Marines, in whom he had so much faith. He discovered that the Japanese pillbox defenses were indestructible by Navy bombs; that is why the Marines who landed on Tarawa had found such a strong Japanese force waiting for them. The media portrayed the battle as a slaughter, but Howlin' Mad gained confidence in the valor of the Marines. Because such a relatively small group of Marines was able to defeat 5,000 Japanese soldiers at Tarawa, the tactic of amphibious assaults seemed plausible.
James Bradley describes the attack on Pearl Harbor by using quotations from the media. He takes the point of view of startled Americans who, because of the massive media coverage, were no longer able to ignore Japan as an enemy. The media's influence becomes a main theme in the book, as the symbol of the flag raising and the flag raisers themselves are distorted and packaged by the media in ways that will serve the interests of the government, but that are not necessarily reflective of the truth. Here, John Daly of the NBC Red is quoted as declaring that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor by air, and Americans are described as poring over their newspapers to learn more about Japan, their new enemy. The photos published in Life magazine in 1938 of Japanese atrocities at Nanking sowed terror not only in the American public but in the Marines who arrived at Guadalcanal. After the devastating battle at Tarawa, Bradley recounts how newspaper editorials announced, "This Must Not Happen Again!" alongside pictures of dead Marines floating in the ocean around the island.
The theme of individuals versus country is introduced with respect to Japan as Bradley describes the atmosphere leading up to World War II for that country. Throughout the 1930s, Japan, as a country led by a military regime, conquered Manchuria and China. Though the Japanese army "employed ruthless tactics," the citizens themselves are squeezed "in an iron vise," totally brainwashed and manipulated into carrying out the will of the government. In relating the atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers at Nanking, the capital of China, Bradley distinguishes the Japanese from the Germans, the Americans' other enemy in World War II. The "sense of restraint" that dictated even the most brutal front in Europe was absent from the war in the Pacific. Japanese soldiers believed they were fighting in the "Way of the Warrior," or the Bushido tradition, but in fact they were being forced to operate within a twisted version of this warrior ideal; the Japanese military in the 20th century was more of "a cult of death," and its "warriors" were viewed as expendable. This theme is also developed in terms of the American military, which also broke down the idea of an individual self. However, in this case, the dedication was not to an unknown emperor, but to the team of soldiers.
James Bradley often uses letters to demonstrate the themes of his book, especially the transition from boyhood to manhood. A letter from Ira Hayes to his parents from training in San Diego shows that "his boyish innocence did not vanish overnight." When he returns home on furlough after fighting in Bougainville, "the slim, quiet boy had been transformed into a very formidable-looking young man... his words were typically thoughtful and gentle, but they were no longer the words of a boy. A man was talking now, a man who had seen things." Harlon Block refused to be a conscientious objector to battle based on his religion, and his father sided with him against his mother, Belle, because it would "make him a man."
Letter writing also demonstrates the role religion played in the lives of the flag raisers. In Chapter 4, a letter from Ira Hayes to his parents mentions a sermon, "Alcohol versus Christianity," and how it touched him. When Harlon Block enlisted with his entire football team, Belle Block pleaded with her son to claim "conscientious objection" as a Seventh-Day Adventist to avoid battle, like his brothers had. Bradley focuses on Harlon's religion when he points out that, after Harlon landed on Bougainville, "Harlon, the Seventh-Day Adventist, was getting his first glimpse of the world's wickedness as he trudged past these remains of friends and enemy dead."
Bradley uses dramatic irony often in his story telling, especially with regard to the outcome of the war and of the flag raisers' lives. For instance, when Jack Bradley is assigned to work in the hospital of California, he feels lucky to be avoiding battle. "But for Jack Bradley, the good life was about to change." This dramatic irony also works as foreshadowing, as the readers learn what they already know: Jack Bradley will be in the heat of battle. However, at this point in the story, Jack Bradley himself is still ignorant of this fact. Likewise, when Rene Gagnon enlists, his career as a Marine seems to be going "nowhere in particular. That would eventually change."