Flags of Our Fathers

John J. Hopkins Jul. 1, 2006, 7:01am

Instead of a classic movie line or title, today's column uses as its metaphor the yet-to-be released World War II saga of the battle of Iwo Jima, "Flags of Our Fathers."

Based on the best seller by James Bradley, it tells the story of his father Navy Corpsman John Bradley, one of the six who raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi, becoming in the process the most famous photograph of WWII, the symbol of the Marine Corps and the focus of countless posters invoking strength, team work and fortitude.

Bradley the elder left the field of blood to retire to the peace and prosperity of post war Wisconsin and the life of a small town mortician. Like so many of his time, he rarely spoke of his moment in history, not even to his wife of 47 years.

After his death, his son pieced together the mosaic of his heroism, as well as those of the five others, all of whom became immortal because of the quick shutter of cameraman Joe Rosenthal. It is a powerful and extremely moving story, one that I gave to my Dad one Father's Day.

His review says it all: "This book should be given to all boys in grade school. They need to know what those Marines did."

High praise indeed from the Old Man. In the hands of director Clint Eastwood, I predict the movie will be a huge critical and commercial hit, and probable Oscar contender.

I have been thinking about the story of Iwo Jima, World War II in general, and of the "Greatest Generation," and how their sacrifices literally saved the world from tyranny -- reflections in two distinct and diverse ways.

As is our tradition, this year the Madison County Bar Association held a Memorial Service on the last Thursday in May for all of the members passing away in the preceding 12 months. By sheer coincidence, two of the honored were decorated WWII combat veterans, Bill Cox and Malcolm Durr.

Both respective eulogizers spoke in detail about their service, their humility and sacrifice, and like Corpsman Bradley, how rare it was for them to speak about their experiences, simply thinking of it as a duty done, nothing more.

In the course of the presentation, a suggestion was made that Bar specially honor the combat veterans of the Second World War, a Band of Brothers unfortunately succumbing to the relentless march of time to the tune of 1,000 per week nationwide.

Research has revealed a number of Madison County Bar members who served in active duty in the Pacific, on the sands of North Africa, or over the skies of Europe, among them being Zeke Smith, Bob Ryan, Dick Mudge, John Gitchoff, Harry Hartman, and Judge Joseph Barr, an especially poignant symbol for his service as a Marine in the Pacific.

All of the Judges and Lawyers who served under fire will be honored and thanked for their service in a ceremony planned for November. Like the World War II Memorial in Washington, such recognition, while not solicited, is certainly most heart felt, and long overdue.

"The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the Unites States."

This simple sentence is commonly known as the Flag Burning amendment. By a single vote, the Senate failed to pass the amendment by the required two thirds majority, 66-34. The measure, already passed by the House and awaited by President Bush with ready pen, was in reaction to two Supreme Court cases in which federal anti-desecration laws were struck down as impermissible under the First Amendment, with the Court sending an invitation to amend the Constitution to get the job done.

Despite the passage by the legislatures of all 50 states of resolutions in support, the Senate failed.

The Senate failed in not only mustering enough votes, but failed to grasp the meaning of the flag, and what it represents. It is raised for Olympic champions, drapes coffins, adorns every public building, is that to which we Pledge Our Allegiance, that for which so many through history have given the "last full measure of devotion."

When the flag is attacked, it is not enough to say that you take offense. You must take the offensive to prevent the re-occurrence. When we are to be insulted abroad, our national symbol is burned. It is intended to show contempt.

Regrettably, it must be at times tolerated in foreign lands. Such should not be the case on our native soil. There are things in a free society that you are not free to do.

Ever since 9-11, I have worn a flag lapel pin on my suit jacket. I fly the flag at the office, and at home. Thanks to the efforts of patriotic neighbors, from Memorial Day to Labor day, flags line both sides of Henry Street in Alton. It is not a special deal or pretentious display, but simply an attempt to show pride in country, and solidarity with those serving and protecting, under the same symbol of freedom.

You have to wonder what John Bradley, or any of his comrades, now together in their eternal reward, would think of the Flag Burning Amendment, or even the need for such action.

I suspect that not much American flag burning went on in Wisconsin during World War II. We do not honor their memory by failing to preserve the dignity of the symbol of their sacrifice.

Failing to fully protect our tangible national symbol, the raising of which on a tiny spot of volcanic ash gave hope to the world, shows weakness in a time when strength is mandated.

We should honor the memory of the countless who died defending the flag, but especially the men who stared down death to bring home the Holy Grail of Righteous victory.

They did their duty. Now we must do ours.

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