Friday, July 15, 2011

Ira Hayes: Heroes, Victims and the Photos of War

Recently, I thought of Ira Hayes (the reason is not important). Actually, I thought of the only thing about the way I had heard of him, the Ballad of Ira Hayes by Peter LaFarge. The song was also recorded by others, including Johnny Cash.

Ira Hayes was a war hero, a Marine who with 4 fellow Marines (Rene Gagnon, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Mike Strank) and a Navy Corpsman, John Bradley, were immortalized in the act of raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. The photo, taken by Joe Rosenthal, may well be the iconic photograph of World War II.   Three of them, Strank, Sousley, and Block lost their lives on Iwo Jima shortly after. The other 3 survived to become national heroes, honored by both President Roosevelt and later brought to the White House by President Truman. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Sacaton, AZ, did not relish the limelight but was, apparently, consumed with depression at the loss of not only these three, but also many others. He is quoted as saying "How could I feel like a hero when only five men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250 managed to escape death or injury?" Hayes became an alcoholic and died from this disease at the age of 32 in 1955.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Or the Marine who went to war”

The author of these powerful lyrics, Peter LaFarge (son of Oliver LaFarge, author of the classic Laughing Boy) himself died at age 34 in 1965.

If Rosenthal’s photo on Iwo Jima is the iconic photo of WWII, I would guess that there are comparable iconic photos of every war since the invention of photography. Two that come to my mind are the “Fallen Soldier” taken during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 by Robert Capa,
and the photo of the naked child (later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phúc) running down the road, burned on the back from napalm in Trang Bang, Vietnam in 1972, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Huyn Cong (Nick) Út.
I am sure there are others than people can think of, from WWI and Korea as well as our many more recent wars. But if the three I have cited share the fact that they are representatives of their wars, they are also very different. The oldest, Capa’s, shows what we should expect in war, the soldier dying. Rosenthal’s photo of Hayes and his companions represents heroism, bravery, honor and victory – the raising of the Stars and Stripes on the highest point on what had been an enemy-held island. And Út’s photo depicts the horror of war’s effects on innocents, civilians, on children.

But it is not that simple, of course.  Pham (now known as Kim Phúc), the victim, while badly burned (a victim of an attack by South Vietnamese pilot who mistook the group of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians running from a temple to safety as the “enemy”), grew up to attend medical school and find political asylum in Canada, where she has lived and established the Kim Phuc Foundation. The heroes, Hayes and his compatriots, suffered, for the most part, depression and premature death. Photographs are very powerful, but everything is not always as it seems in pictures.

1 comment:

  1. From Seiji Yamada, MD:

    I suggest that the iconic image of the Iraq War (i.e. the ongoing U.S. invasion of Iraq) is that of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, which can be found at

    (though images from Abu Ghraib might be more famous).

    I excerpt below from what we wrote about Ali's image in:

    Yamada S, Smith Fawzi MC, Maskarinec GG, Farmer PE. Casualties: narrative and images of the war on Iraq. International Journal of Health Services, 2006;36(2):401-15.

    which I see is posted on an MIT website, Iraq: the Human Cost


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