Flags of Our Fathers

Flags of Our Fathers Themes


After the death of her young daughter Mary Ellen, Kathryn Bradley concentrates on raising John devoutly Catholic; Mike Strank's Catholic faith is also the result of his mother's influence. Goldie Sousley and her son, Franklin, are extremely close after the deaths of his brother and father. Belle Block strongly opposes Harlon's joining the football team, but her influence on him in terms of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs is clear. Ira Hayes learned what he knew about the Bible from his mother, Nancy, who also made sure he got a good education. Likewise, Rene Gagnon's mother is the most important person in his life until he marries Pauline Harnois. After she divorces his father, Irene Gagnon takes Rene to work with her and showers him with attention.

In Chapter 5, after hearing that his mother has become ill, Franklin Sousley writes, "You can grow a crop of tobacco every summer, but I sure as hell can't grow another mother like you." When the 5th Division makes National Service Life Insurance policies available to the Marines, Harlon purchased a ten-thousand-dollar policy with Belle as the sole beneficiary. In his comparison of the Japanese, German, and American troops, Bradley points out that they are connected by their dying word, which is invariably, "Mother!"

Mothers are important figures in Chapter 13. Belle Block is convinced that her son, Harlon, is one of the men in the famous flag-raising photograph, though everyone else thinks it is impossible to be sure. Rene Gagnon tells his son, many years later, the thoughts that went through his head after he killed his first Japanese soldier: "We all have mothers. We're all human. Why does this have to be?"

Belle Block's plight as a mother is highlighted in Chapter 17. After she learns of Harlon's death on Iwo Jima, "something in her had been broken." Although Ira Hayes's life is in shambles, he makes the important trip to Weslaco, Texas, to tell Ed that his son, Harlon, is featured in the famous photograph, confirming what Belle was sure of all along. She contacts her Congressman to make sure that the proper steps are taken to publicly identify Harlon in the photograph. But Bradley implies that even if these steps had not been taken, she would have continued believing that it was Harlon in the photograph because, "Belle knew her boy."

Religious Faith

As the flag raisers are introduced in Chapter 2, it is clear how religion influences each of the flag raisers in their childhoods. John Bradley and Mike Strank are devout Catholics. Harlon Block is more influenced by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church than his other siblings, though he leaves his religious school to play football at Welasco High School. Ira Hayes lived just a few steps from the church in which his mother was an important figure.

Letter writing is used to demonstrate 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."

In Chapter 5, Bradley relates how his father volunteered to helps serve the first Catholic mass when he arrived at Camp Pendleton, and attended daily masses during his time there. Harlon Block struggles with the tension between his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs and his violent duties as a Marine. He confesses his guilt over this issue to his former Weslaco teammate, Leo Ryan, who has been hospitalized at Pearl Harbor. As the Marines arrive at Iwo Jima, they are accompanied by rabbis, priests, and ministers who will comfort those who are dying in battle.

Religion has been an important theme in relation to all the flag raisers and their families, and in Chapter 17, it is important to Jack and Betty Bradley. They get in the habit of praying together before bed, and Betty notices that Jack adds on, "Blessed Mother, please help us so everything turns out all right," a prayer he had often said on Iwo Jima.

The Tension between Boyhood and Manhood

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 is used to show 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."

In Chapter 5, Ira writes home to his parents, "Don't worry about me. I'm a man now, no young guy." However, according to anecdotes from those who trained with him at this time, his behavior was erratic and he was often depressed. Rene is disliked in Easy Company because his pencil-thin mustache "made him look like nothing so much as a little boy trying to disguise himself as a man."

In Chapter 13, as Easy Company takes a break to swim in the ocean on the western beach, Bradley writes in the first person: "I try to imagine it: a cadre of grimy, battle-hardened Marines facing mutilation and death in their dirty foxholes transformed in a moment to a gaggle of naked boys swimming and splashing in the ocean."

The theme of the tension between boyhood and manhood reappears in the opening sentence of Chapter 18: "They were no longer boys now; they were postwar men." This line implies that the flag raisers now have assumed a level of responsibility for their lives that they never had before. Ira Hayes is offered help (whatever the motivation) from the Chicago Sun-Times and from Elizabeth Martin, but is unable to pull his life together. In a letter home to his parents, he writes, "So I was cured in their eyes. They had done their part. Now the real test is up to me... all I need is the will power..."


Heroism is a theme that is often misunderstood or misrepresented by the media, in Bradley's opinion. In the Chapter 7 description of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he uses anecdotes to present real images of heroes. For example, Tony Stein, the first Medal of Honor winner on Iwo Jima, stood upright to attract enemy fire so his team could get into position. One medic refuses aid from a corpsman, because helping the others is more important. Father Paul Bradley, a priest, crawls from dying man to dying man offering religious solace.

One of the main reasons Jack Bradley refuses to talk about his experiences on Iwo Jima, according to James Bradley his son, is that he doesn't want to seek fame as a hero. He believes that "heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others." In contrast, the flag raising "contained no action worthy of remembering," and thus doesn't make him a hero; he is made a hero by his actions in saving his fellow Marines and in attempting to save those who ended up dying on the island.

Jack Bradley does not attend any of the reunions organized by Dave Severance in the 1980s. He claims it is because he wouldn't be able to be himself since he has been so singled out by the press for his role in the photograph, but James Bradley believes it is really because he doesn't feel like a hero at all. When the author was in third grade and asked his father to give a speech to his class, he remembers that his father answered, "Your teacher said something about heroes... I want you to always remember something. The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back."

The Misguided Media

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 declares that the Japanese have 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 also 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 the misguided media is extremely relevant as newspapers largely ignore the raging battle on Iwo Jima, since it does not adhere to their fake story of valor climbing Mount Suribachi. Bradley addresses the members of the press with a degree of disdain, sarcastically referring to them as "gentlemen of the press" in contrast to the soldiers fighting the battle. Time magazine propagates an unverified rumor on its radio program when it broadcasts that the photograph was staged. Rosenthal demands and receives a public apology from Time, but the photograph would cause him much frustration in the future. Though the Marines continue to fight on Iwo Jima, the March 5 edition of Time magazine published the photograph of the flag raising on its front page as if the battle had been won. Jack Bradley is mistrustful of the media and refuses to give interviews to the journalists who often call his home for the rest of his life.

The media is targeted as contributing to destructive behavior. Bradley claims, "The more helpless and vulnerable Ira grew, the more brazen was the press's exploitation of him." A reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times visits him in jail and takes his photograph, and that newspaper posts his bail and enrolls him in a rehabilitation program. They promote fixing his life as their "sanctimonious mission," but in the process, they put pressure on him that contributes to his demise.

Individuals vs. Country

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.

During the air raid in Chapter 9, an American on board a ship offshore of Iwo Jima reports that he "could see the face of the Japanese pilot. You could see the fear of death on his face." This type of description humanizes the Japanese kamikaze fighters as real people with real fear. Likewise, as Bradley tells of the soldiers ordered by Colonel Kanehiko Atsuchi to abandon Mount Suribachi, their plight is unfortunate at the hands of the Japanese navy guard, which punishes them for surrendering.

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.

Perception vs. Reality

The press is responsible for the American peoples' perception of the war, and during the majority of the battle on Iwo Jima, that perception contrasted with reality. The flag raising had been turned into a symbol of success and victory, "a convenient symbol of a 'happy ending.'" "Attention had now begun to shift away from Iwo Jima, even as the great bulk of the bloodletting began." The contrast between perception and reality is also clear in Bradley's relation of Representative Homer Angell of Oregon's oration in the House of Representatives, in which he declares the photograph to be a representation of "'the dauntless permanency of the American spirit.' Half a world away, the boys did not look so dauntless." Later, as described in Chapter 14, Jack Bradley is mistrustful of the media and refuses to give interviews to the journalists who often call his home for the rest of his life.

The theme of perception vs. reality is expanded to include the state of the Marines after being discharged from service in Chapter 17. Many veterans, like Pete Strank, are openly affected by their service and their behavior changes all around. However, some, like Jack Bradley, are haunted in their sleep. James Bradley uses the technique of short, dramatic sentence fragments to emphasize the contrast between what his father's life appeared to be and the trauma that he suffered in silence: "Serenity and happiness. And yet even after the two were married, John Bradley continued to weep in his sleep for four years." In the case of Ira Hayes, this technique describes his descent into alcoholism: "Struggled, and drank. And slipped a little further into the darkness."