Monuments are erected to celebrate victories and mourn losses. We chisel names into buildings as a way to claim a piece of posterity. But what happens when those same statues and touted heroes are no longer role models for society's current values? In the wake of the George Floyd protests this summer, statues throughout America of Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, John Calhoun and others have been torn down. Princeton University removed President Woodrow Wilson's name from its School of Public Policy and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City requested that a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt be removed from the front of its building because it depicts Black and indigenous people in an inferior way. What is the value in monuments to the past? Award-winning historian Keith Lowe tackles these questions among others in his new book, Prisoners of History (St. Martin's, December). In this excerpt from his book, Lowe explores the differing attitudes to monuments by Europeans and Americans by analyzing the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial and explains how American flag-waving is perceived very differently abroad.

a sunset over Marine Corps War Memorial: LET FREEDOM RING Americans view the Iwo Jima memorial as a monument to liberation. Its flag is the real reason why the memorial is so well loved in America.© FRANK GRACE/GETTY LET FREEDOM RING Americans view the Iwo Jima memorial as a monument to liberation. Its flag is the real reason why the memorial is so well loved in America.

One of the best-loved monuments to American heroism during World War II is the Marine Corps memorial in Arlington, Virginia. It is based on one of the most iconic images from 1945—Joe Rosenthal's photograph of a group of marines when they raised a flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle for the island of Iwo Jima.

Like all good memorials, this one tells a story. To understand it properly, one needs to go to the beginning of the conflict. America's war began on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their notorious, surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This remains one of the defining events of American history. For 90 minutes, hundreds of Japanese planes bombed American ships, airfields and port facilities, killing more than 2,400 people and wounding almost 1,200 more. Twenty-one ships were sunk, and 188 military aircraft destroyed. The sense of shock that this produced in American society is impossible to overstate. Its only recent parallel has been the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The logic behind this military strike was simple. Japan wanted to take control of the whole Pacific region and to discourage America from stepping in. The Japanese leadership did not think that America had the stomach for a long war in the Pacific, and were willing to gamble that a quick, decisive victory would force them to negotiate a settlement. In other words, Pearl Harbor was not supposed to start a war with America; it was supposed to prevent one.

This was a risky strategy. America never gives up without a fight. Once they had recovered from their initial surprise, the American military responded with ruthless determination. Over the next three-and-a-half years, it clawed its way, step by step, back across the Pacific Ocean.

The Marines were often at the forefront of the action. Eventually, U.S. forces advanced all the way to the shores of Japan. The first island they reached was Iwo Jima. After four days of savage fighting, a group of marines managed to fight their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the island. To signal that they had reached the summit, they attached a U.S. flag to a length of piping and raised it. Later that day, a second group of marines brought a larger flag up to replace it, and war photographer Rosenthal was there to capture the moment for posterity.