Most people don’t know who raised the American flag in that famous World War II photo from the battle of Iwo Jima. Most of those who do simply accept that information and move on with their lives.
Most people aren’t history nerds. History nerds question, and probe, and spend countless hours comparing photographs or hunting down film footage. And in this case, they’ve caused people to reexamine what had long been thought settled about the identity of the American warriors in that iconic image and to ask whether one man who had long been celebrated as a flag-raiser wasn’t in the picture at all. It’s a fascinating story, and one that you can read about here.
I’d like to focus, though, not on the Iwo Jima photo and the soldiers, but on the history nerds themselves. Some will wonder how anyone could be so obsessed with a particular battle from a war that ended more than 60 years ago that they would spend their free time doing the kind of detailed review and analysis that ultimately documented the lingering questions about the flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi. What, don’t these geeks have lives?
But the reality of nerds the world over is that a passion lurks deep beneath the nerdish, pocket-protector-wearing surface. Maybe it’s triggered by computers, or by a Star Trek episode or a Dungeons and Dragons game. In the case of history nerds, it might be a Civil War battle, or a particular historical figure or event that lights the fuse of passion — and once the fuse is lit the nerd feels the need to read everything he can get his hands on about that one historical topic. Most history nerds stop with binge-reading, but the serious guys go on to the next level. They participate in Civil War reenactments and take scrupulous care to make sure their uniforms are as authentic as possible, or they fly to the site of the Battle of Agincourt, or they delve into the historical record because a fact that is accepted as settled doesn’t seem quite right. And sometimes, as in the case of the Iwo Jima photo, those passionate history nerds get to make a bit of history themselves.
It’s interesting that the identity of the Iwo Jima flag raisers could be confused for so long without the actual participants speaking up, but what’s really cool about this story is the unflagging determination of the history nerds to make sure the historical record is right.