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War Scribes: Raising Flag for Journalism

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Good morning. It’s February 23. On this date in 1945, the U.S. Marines raised the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. Captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, the image became an instant classic that helped buck up a war-weary nation. It is still an iconic symbol of the war in the Pacific - and of the United States Marine Corps itself.

The provenance of that photo has been the source of some scrutiny over the years. Of the 9,000 U.S. Marines in the initial landing force on Iwo Jima, 550 were killed and another 1,800 wounded in the first day of fighting. In the face of such carnage, the Marines knew their progress would be measured in yards.

On the fourth day, the 28th Marine Regiment approached the foot of Suribachi. As the highest point on the island, the volcanic mountain was strategically crucial. Using flamethrowers, snipers, grenades, and other explosives, the Americans systematically rooted the Japanese defenders out of their caves and pillboxes.

Although the fighting would continue for another 31 days - at a total cost of 6,800 American lives - the flag-raising on February 23, 1945 was the turning point. It was first recorded by Marine photographer Sgt. Louis R. Lowery, who as he descended the mountain informed Joe Rosenthal and two other Marine photographers what he’d shot on film. The trio continued up to the summit where they were fortunate to see a second flag-raising ceremony – with a larger and more photogenic flag. It was this picture that was viewed by the American public (including President Roosevelt) and which won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize.

I mention this because Pulitzers and awards are not why journalists bravely tread into war zones armed only with cameras, tape recorders, and their pens and notebooks. They do it, as intrepid American war correspondent Marie Colvin said, because the world needs to know about war, especially when civilians are the targets.

Colvin went to Yale intending to become an anthropologist when she happened to take a seminar with John Hersey, the famous American journalist who wrote a short classic about the fighting on another Pacific island called “Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal.”

She got hooked on reporting from such places herself, as she explained the war correspondent’s rationale for heading into danger at a 2010 event in London dedicated to journalists killed while on assignment in the world’s war zones. “Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children,” Colvin said. “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”

Marie Colvin was doing just that when she was killed, on this date in 2012, in the city of Homs by Syrian army forces who were shelling a civilian neighborhood.

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