Alongside the road by the bayfront in Sarasota, Florida, is a 25-foot-tall statue of a 1940’s-era U.S. Navy sailor kissing a woman in a nurse’s uniform. She’s bent backward with her eyes closed, and one arm dangling at her side in blissful submission to his embrace.
The statue, entitled “Unconditional Surrender,” is a copy of a lesser-known version of an iconic photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstadt.
The date was August 14, 1945, and the U.S. media had just announced that Japan would agree to surrender, thereby ending four long years of war. Japan’s surrender was particularly significant because the Japanese had fought so tenaciously, and had sworn to fight to the last inch of soil if their country was invaded.
Like today’s suicide bombers, Japanese kamikaze pilots found glory in sacrificing their lives to kill Americans. Moreover, Japan had prompted the United States to enter the war by attacking Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 event of our parents’ generation.
Japan’s surrender was likely prompted by our destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9 , just a few days earlier. In the world’s first and (to date) only wartime use of atomic weapons, the United States had wiped out two entire cities and killed between 75,000 and 125,000 people, virtually in the blink of an eye. More than twice that number would die from the effects of the bombs over the coming months and years.
But on August 14, people in America weren’t wringing their hands over whether or not our use of the atomic bomb had been justified. This was a day when unbridled joy broke out across the land, and drunken revelers spontaneously poured into the streets of New York and other cities. It was in the midst of this happy mayhem that an anonymous sailor grabbed a dental assistant he’d never met and planted a kiss on her startled lips.
Unconditional Surrender has been derided by many as a kitschy and derivative – journalistic – hardly qualifying as art. However, one World War II veteran with a strong sense of nostalgia, and the bankroll to back it up, felt it worthwhile to pay around half a million dollars to have the statue displayed in Sarasota. So there it stands (at least for a couple more years).
What strikes me about the photo, and the sculpture, is not that they capture a moment that has any direct emotional significance to me; they don’t. What I find interesting is that there never was a similar galvanizing moment in our lives at the end of a war – because the war of our youth, Vietnam, divided the country, rather than united it.
There were gung-ho types who went off to that war in the blind faith that it was their duty to do whatever our leaders had decided was right. There were the hippies and others in the peace movement who demonstrated against the war, and ran off to Canada, or invented exotic ailments to exempt them from the draft. Any young man who was undecided, but nonetheless fit and unwilling to buck the system, was subject to being drafted, and sent off to fight an obscure, unpopular war.
I was fortunate, because by the time I turned 18, the war was winding down and they never called people with my draft card number. But even though I didn’t go, the media images in my mind from Vietnam are far from glorious. There was the wrenching photo of a naked young girl running down the street among a crowd of terrified Vietnamese citizens, fleeing the napalm bombing of her village.
There was the horrific image of a South Vietnamese general at the moment he was executing a prisoner, where you could actually see the pressure and wind rush from the gunshot distorting the doomed man’s face. And finally, there were the photos of Americans lining up to be evacuated from Saigon by a helicopter waiting on a rooftop.
Maybe it’s good that our generation doesn’t have any romanticized images to associate with our “big war.” Thanks to the Internet and smartphones, and the resultant near-instantaneous global communication of words and images, that kind of photo is unlikely to ever be so dominant again. Even an event as happy, and apparently as innocent, as the kiss reflected in Unconditional Surrender would quickly lose its impact in the real-time, You-Tube’d, instant-messaged context of all the horrors that had come before it.