My wife is a very intelligent and discerning woman. I recently dropped a (not so) subtle hint that, for my birthday, I would like the book Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley. Guess what? She blessed me with this gift! And what a gift it has proven to be; it is one of the best books I have ever read. In this article, I would like to share with you a few reasons for this conclusion. But first, let me give you a brief overview of its contents.
The book was written by a son of one of the men in the famed photograph of the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945. There were six men in this famed photo and the book gives some insight into their lives. But the main thrust of the book (now a major motion picture) is to describe the battle for this strategic island in the South Pacific (1,000km from Japan), which lasted for 36 days at the cost of some fifty thousand lives. In fact, it is the only battle in history in which the “victors” lost more lives that those they defeated.
As the book unfolds, the reader gets an (awful) insight into the horror of war, as well as a tear-producing glimpse of “uncommon valour” becoming a “common virtue.” Without a doubt, it is perhaps the most moving real life account that I have ever read.
I suppose that one reason I was drawn to the book was because, last July, my family and I spent several days in Washington DC viewing the sights of that powerful and historic city. We visited several monuments that were built in honour of that nation’s soldiers who were casualties of war. I remember crying a lot. It was an intensive emotional experience to be confronted with the reminder of how many young men and women have died in the horror of war throughout the world. On our trip, we visited the Iwo Jima monument—the largest bronze sculpture in the world—and once again I was moved by the words inscribed at its base: “Uncommon valour was a common virtue.” These words were uttered in tribute to the casualties of the war by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. The experience sparked my interest to know more.
A second, and compelling, motivation to read this book came as I read the book Don’t Waste Your Life by pastor-author John Piper. In this book, he alludes to Flags of Our Fathers on several occasions as he challenges believers to lay down their lives for the cause of the gospel of Christ.
As I read Piper, I noted many parallels between the Iwo Jima soldiers and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We too are called to warfare—spiritual warfare—which we must face with the perspective of Christian soldiers marching forth to war. The following observations are some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I read this book under the influence of a kingdom perspective. I trust that they will be of help to you.
The horrendous cost of sin
“War is hell,” it has been said. In fact, war is from hell. Had there been no sin there would be no conflict, no casualties, no crying over oceans of shed blood. We should hate sin, above all, because it offends our glorious God, but also because of its awful and evil consequences. And war typifies its heinousness. If you want a good reason to hate the devil, just visit a war memorial.
The awful cost of peace
World War II ended when Japan was defeated with the settling of the atomic dust of two devastating bombs. The path to this closing episode was strewn with hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded and maimed soldiers. Peace was secured, but at a huge cost.
And so it is in obtaining peace with God. Sinners have a sworn enemy—Almighty God (what fools we are!)—and He brings the conflict to a peaceful ending by giving us His Son. His Son lays down His life. The sinless Son is made in the likeness of sinful flesh and suffers the Father’s wrath so that we might have “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Believer, let us never lose sight of the horrendous cost paid by the Lord Jesus Christ so that our hostilities may be put away forever!
The price that must be paid for others to have peace
Millions of people around the globe enjoyed peace as a result of those who laid down their lives at the volcanic sands of Imo Jima.
After the battle was over, a cemetery was made for the Marines of the Fifth Division. Someone chiselled into a nearby stone:
When you go home,
Tell them for us and say,
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.
This should be the mindset of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be more than willing to sacrifice today in order that others will enjoy God for an eternity of tomorrow. Just as Paul was willing to be offered as a sacrifice in order for the church to have a better tomorrow for the glory of God (Philippians 2:17–18), so must we.
Just think about this fact: These valiant soldiers endured the most excruciating circumstances—thousands suffering horrific death—for a political, temporal cause of liberty. And many (most?) who did so went into eternity without hope, without Christ and thus without God. But believers have an eternal purpose for which we are privileged to lay down our lives. Why do so many loyal soldiers die for a moral and temporal cause, while we criticise as “fanatics” believers who are willing to leave all for the sake of the glory of God? Very skewed priorities indeed!
The beauty of humility
John Bradley was one of the men who helped to raise the flag on that famed day. He was a corpsman (a medic) who risked his life every day for over thirty days to tend to wounded soldiers. He risked his life and saved the lives of many. Even when he was severely wounded, he helped to rescue others. In recognition of his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honour that any soldier in the US forces could receive.
After the war, Bradley went back home, got married, raised eight children and was a business success and a local leader in his community. At seventy years of age, he died of a heart condition. Only upon his death did his wife and family discover that he had received this honour. They came across it in a shoe box that contained some of his memorabilia of the war. Think about it: a highly decorated soldier who never told anyone. A man who was in perhaps the most famous military picture of all time, and he would deflect all conversation about it.
One day, his son asked him why he, a “real hero,” never talked about his fame. His answer was simple, “Son, the real heroes are those who never came back.” This was humility born of facing some hard facts.
Believer, we should face the fact that the real hero is the Captain of our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. To Him alone goes all the glory. He raised no flag, but He laid His life down so that He might be raised on a cross to save the lost and unworthy. Praise be to God: He died and came back—and He will one day come back.
Let us keep this in mind when we find that we are not getting all the recognition that we think we deserve. With the songwriter, let us humbly say, “When I survey the wondrous cross … I … pour contempt on all my pride.”
The value of teamwork
The story behind the actual raising of the flag is very interesting (I’ll not divulge the storyline—read the book!). Without going into the details, let me ask and answer the question, how did it come about that these six men ended up in Joe Rosenthal’s famed photo? Simply because someone asked them for help in raising a 50kg pole with a flag at the end of it!
They were in the right place at the right time, and they did the right thing (i.e. they obeyed the order of a superior officer). They thus pitched in, without regard to rank, ability, race or personality, and simply did what they were told. So it is with the church. We simply need to work with one another to raise the standard of the cross in obedience to our Lord’s command. As we simply do as we are told, who can tell what wonders will be wrought?
The call to sacrifice
The soldiers on Iwo Jima were not the only ones who were sacrificing. There were millions back in their homeland who were making sacrifice in order for the war to be won. Ordinary citizens were denying themselves luxuries in order to maintain their troops on the field. Sacrifice became the order of the day.
On seven occasions, US citizens were asked to dig deep and to buy war bands in order to keep the military machine fighting. This was in the days when taxes were not the fuel for defence departments. In the last drive, the government needed $8 billion. There was scepticism, for the public had clearly contributed so much and times were very tough. But after the three-month drive, $23 billion had been raised! More had been raised in that drive than in any single previous drive. The public saw a need and they resolved to meet it—sacrificially.
Church, we have a far greater cause for which we are called to sacrifice. May we “dig deeper” than ever and invest in the kingdom of God for His glory. May we so live that the next generation will be able to look to the faith of their fathers; a faith that has proven itself as we willingly forsake all to follow the Captain of our salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ.