Are false memories to blame for Iwo Jima flag-raising dispute?

Story highlights

  • Amateur historians dispute long-held beliefs about Iwo Jima flag-raiser's identity
  • The phenomenon of "false memories" could explain the discrepancy

(CNN)In one of the most iconic images in American history, five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raise a flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.

After 70 years, a Pulitzer Prize, a bestselling book and a feature film, the identity of one of the flag-raisers is being called into question. Was John Bradley, reportedly the Navy corpsman in the photo, really there?
    Two amateur historians compiled photo evidence that suggests he wasn't. The find has led the Marine Corps to launch an investigation into the photo, and James Bradley, John's son, has admitted that he is not entirely sure his father was present in that particular image.
    The discovery shakes the foundation of years of James Bradley's work: He wrote "Flags of Our Fathers," a bestselling book about his father and the flag-raising. In 2006, the book was turned into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Bradley has also written several other nonfiction books about World War II.
    He is not the only one to conduct intimate and intricate work around the photo. The Marine Corps War Memorial, which sits proudly on Arlington Ridge in Washington, is a faithful re-creation of the image. James Bradley met with the sculptor, who is now deceased, to discuss details of his father's portrayal. The Marines themselves have stood by John Bradley's presence in the photo, even though the Corps is investigating the issue.
    How did it come to be that John and James Bradley -- and an entire nation -- built 70 years of history atop a possible untruth?
    A false memory isn't exactly what it sounds like. "False" implies that the rememberer knows that the memory isn't true when, in fact, false memories can be deeply held and truly believed.
    If the evidence proves that Bradley was not in the photo, this phenomenon could provide a rational explanation for why he, his son, the Marines and countless other individuals stood by an altered reality for so long.
    Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that such a scenario isn't only understandable, it's common.
    "This happens to everybody on some level," she said. "Just like real events, (false memories) become implanted somehow, and they start to grow, like a seed planted in soil starts to develop roots and connect to other memories."
    In the case of Bradley and the photo, there were several circumstances Whitbourne says could make a false memory more likely to "grow":
    • The initial memory came during a time of duress: Exhausted, triumphant and combat-worn, the men on Iwo Jima were undoubtedly experiencing the high stress of war at the time the photo was taken. Three of the six flag-raisers were later killed on the island. "When your emotions get raised to a very high degree, it makes it even harder to process information and distinguish reality and unreality," Whitbourne said.
    • It was reinforced by outside sources: James Bradley has said his father had a memory of raising a flag on the mountain. There was more than one flag raised at the time, and Bradley was present at one of them. His personal memory was reinforced by information John Bradley received from the Marines. "It's important to realize my father didn't independently say, 'Hey, I raised the flag and I'm in the photo,' " James Bradley told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He was told months later in a hospital bed, 'Here you are.' " Whitbourne says this is a common way false memories persist. "When it's something that's self-enhancing, (a memory) has even more likelihood that it's going to grow around the frame and the narrative that you'd like to create for yourself and your family."
    • The memory was retold secondhand over the course of decades: James Bradley, who helped immortalize his father's legacy in print, was obviously not present at the time of the flag raising. He was told secondhand, via his father and the Marines. That imperfect exchange of information, coupled with the years the assumption was left to grow, can form a powerful unreality. "All memories are subject to distortion over time," Whitbourne said. "Every time it gets played, something changes. ... At the same time, the more you keep reiterating the same fiction of fact, the less distorted it seems even though it may be increasingly further away from reality."
    While the revelation is clearly a disappointment for the Bradley family, Whitbourne says it's important to remember that false memories are not a product of willful dishonesty. A memory failure on such a scale is unfortunate but "totally understandable."
    "It seems like a pretty simple matter," she said. "He was there; he raised a flag; someone else says he raised that flag. It doesn't amaze me this happened. It's just unfortunate because you may see people accusing a veteran of lying, when in reality he had a real experience that he misremembered."