Correction Appended

ON a recent morning, because I had once written a book on images of the battle of Iwo Jima, I got a desperate call from a Swedish journalist. It seemed that some wire service photos of firemen at the World Trade Center closely resembled Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of five American marines and a combat medic raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi in 1945. What the reporter wanted to know was whether the Rosenthal picture was a fake: a posed propaganda piece intended to stir up patriotic fervor at home. By implication, I suppose, that would have made the World Trade Center image of a flag going up amid the rubble another specimen of American braggadocio.

The Rosenthal picture, as I told the journalist, was not a fake, although its supposed falsity is a widely accepted legend on both sides of the Atlantic. There were two flag-raisings on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. A smaller flag went up first and was duly photographed by a combat cameraman. Because it was hard to see from the beaches, where the marines were still taking heavy fire, a call went out to hoist up a bigger version of the Stars and Stripes. Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press got there in time to catch the second raising on film. For any number of reasons including the crisp, iconic quality of the image, with the flag unfurled against an angry sky, and the heroic efforts of six anonymous figures straining to raise the pole together

it became one of America's best-known pictorial representations of World War II.

Engravers turned the Rosenthal flag-raising into postage stamps. Painters made designs for war bond posters by copying the photo in full color. The sculptor Felix de Weldon used the picture as the basis for a monstrously large statue, the Marine Corps War Memorial, situated just across the Potomac from the other national monuments on

the Mall in Washington. It was dedicated in 1954, and its brutal size made it a cold-war assertion of American armed might and determination.

But what is most interesting about the flag-raising image is that it was a specimen of popular art, that it was not a painting or a statue. It appeared on the front pages of newspapers from The Fleming Gazette (in Flemingsburg, Ky.) to The New York Times. The most dramatic image of war and togetherness and hope for victory ever to emerge from World War II -- a reminder of the continuing carnage in the Pacific -- became art only after the fact.

Although the artistic fruits of the recent national crisis and the current war have only begun to appear, the fine arts have not been particularly responsive to the major crises of American history. The greatest painting of World War II, Picasso's ''Guernica,'' was conceived in a white heat of sorrow and anger after the Fascist slaughter of innocents in a Spanish market town in 1937. Although the canvas spent the war years as a guest of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is not an American painting by a notable American artist. Europe had Picasso. We had Joe Rosenthal and Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell loved to tell his war story. In 1942, in the darkest days of World War II, he proposed a series of inspirational posters illustrating the Four Freedoms spelled out the year before by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In essence, the posters would show Americans what they were fighting for: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. As a patriotic gesture -- as his unique contribution to the war effort -- he took a train to Washington to offer the work to the government, free of charge. After bouncing from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, he found himself late in the day at the Office of War Information. He pulled out his designs, but the fellow in charge didn't want to see them. In World War I, ''you illustrators did the posters,'' the man explained. ''This war we're going to use fine arts men, real artists.''

What happened next suggests how the failure of ''real'' artists to rally round in times of strife left that task to others. Rockwell fled Washington and took his work straight to The Saturday Evening Post. The editors, knowing a good thing when they saw it, ran the posters as full-page illustrations. Only then, after dogeared pages from the magazine began to appear in store windows everywhere, did the Office of War Information come, hat in hand, begging to reprint the work of a mere illustrator. Two and a half million sets of ''The Four Freedoms'' blanketed the nation in 1943, and the original paintings were sent on tour in a successful effort to sell bonds.

In the United States, the feelings unleashed in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were most directly and swiftly addressed by popular artists and the mass media. And their preferred imagery emphasized the collective experience of the majority.

Rockwell's pictorial explanations of why we were at war always came down to the family, the community and the need to keep them safe. In the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, ''Freedom From Want'' was moms and dads, children and grandpas, gathered around the Thanksgiving turkey; the home front was Rosie the Riveter, everybody's saucy sister, with a lace hankie tucked into a pocket of her dungarees; and the typical G.I. was Willie Gillis, a sweet, wide-eyed Everyboy, bound securely to the affections of his hometown by a lifeline of letters, food packages and back issues of the local newspaper. Using the pictorial idiom of his apple-pie America of the 1940's, Rockwell got at the emotional fundamentals of war as surely as Picasso did. Rockwell's were simply different.