"Reconciliation" is a political and sentimental theme in 1985, 40 years after World War II was brought to an end. Ancient history. President Reagan preached that theme in Germany early this month but discovered that many of his countrymen are still unwilling to forgive and forget the Nazis.
It will be interesting to see how he and the rest of us handle the 40th anniversary of the surrender of Japan two months hence. The media most likely will wallow in retrospective guilt over the use of atomic bombs to end that war, reinforcing the notion of Japan and the Japanese as "victims."
The PBS documentary "Return To Iwo Jima" (tonight at 10 on Channel 26) is an inadvertent rebuke to that kind of revisionist thought. It reminds us that the Pacific war was a cruel and ferocious killing match that would have reached epic proportions had American ground forces been required to carry out the planned invasion of Japan.
It also reminds us that simple people -- U.S. and Japanese survivors of the Iwo Jima battles, for example -- can handle the business of "reconciliation" with dignity and a touching sense of the ambivalence old men feel as they remember who they were and what they did when they were young and quick.
It is an uncomplicated film. A group of Marine veterans, assembled in the United States in February of this year, flew to Japan and then to Iwo Jima to gather with old enemies on a desolate little island where more than 50,000 young men became casualties in just over 30 days; of the 21,000 Japanese defenders, only about 1,000 survived.
One of the Americans, John Pasanen, tells how the battle changed his life; after the war he entered the ministry. A Japanese veteran weeps in recalling one of the most bizarre incidents of the war. A high school botany class -- 40 youngsters -- was sent on a field trip from Japan to Iwo Jima shortly before the Marine landing on Feb. 19. They were trapped on the island and each of the children was given two grenades -- one for killing Marines, one for killing himself. They all died.
There are some awkward moments at this ceremonial reunion. Some of the Americans wondered if they could bring themselves to embrace or shake hands with these old enemies. In the end, emotion and the sentiment for reconciliation prevailed.
One of the Americans seemed to speak for them all:
"We were bitter enemies. But now, as men in the twilight of our lives, we can meet . . . in friendship and peace."