Good morning, it’s February 23, 2020. Seventy-five years ago today, the U.S. Marines raised the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the Pacific 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, and the details of the men pictured in it, has long been the source of some scrutiny.

Of the 9,000 U.S. Marines in the initial landing force at Iwo Jima, 550 were killed and another 1,800 wounded in the first day of fighting. 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 — though not all of them.

The fighting would rage for another 31 days, at a cost of 6,800 American lives, including three of the Marines present in the February 23, 1945 flag-raising photograph. The flag-raising was first recorded by Marine photographer Sgt. Louis R. Lowery. As he descended the mountain, Lowery informed Joe Rosenthal of the AP and two Marine photographers what he’d got on film. The trio continued 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.

But Pulitzers and other 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. Then 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 and spent most of her professional life as an iterant war correspondent in the world’s harshest war zones. She was stationed in London, working for the Sunday Times, but her beat was wherever she could document the frightful price that war exacted on the innocent. At a 2010 London conference dedicated to journalists killed while on such assignments, she explained it this way: “Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”

Doing so came with a price. Six years ago this week, Colvin and her wingman, photographer Paul Conroy, snuck into Syria to document the slaughter in the city of Homs. She cut quite a figure with her distinctive black eyepatch, her reputation for wearing La Perla lingerie underneath her khakis and flak jacket, and her otherworldly physical bravery. It was her last battle.

Afterward, some said that Colvin shouldn’t have been in Syria at all. She wore the eyepatch because she’d lost an eye to a grenade in Sri Lanka a decade earlier, which impacted her balance, and she was recovering from recent back surgery. In addition, she had been diagnosed with a severe case of PTSD, which she self-medicated with alcohol.

Yet, there she was, in the city of Homs where civilians were dying by the hundreds as Syrian army forces shelled one civilian neighborhood after another. Her last dispatch came in the form of an interview over a satellite phone with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Colvin told him about the death of a baby boy.

The sat line wasn’t secure and the Syrian government forces apparently tracked and targeted the house where Colvin and a handful of other journalists were hiding. When their bunker was hit directly, Paul Conroy was seriously injured. Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed.

Afterwards, some of Colvin’s friends and colleagues angrily wondered why her editors had sent her there at all. This was imprecise: It would have been all but impossible to keep her away. To Colvin that was the wrong question, anyway. She parried it hours before she died with one of her own. In an email to her assistant in London, she asked, “Why is the world not here?”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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