Images of war dead: Why don’t Americans see more?

US war casualties in a C-17 Globemaster III at...

A 2006 photo released by the Air Force after a Freedom of Information Act request. Image via Wikipedia

The photo shows a U.S. Marine on the brink of death in Afghanistan. Blood and flesh are visible, with the Marine’s face half-way buried in mud and dirt. A photographer for the Associated Press took the image, which the news agency distributed yesterday and today to papers around the country – prompting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to rebuke the Associated Press for “appalling” judgment.

Some U.S. newspapers published the image of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, though many did not. In a letter to the Associated Press, Gates screamed, “Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”

AP’s director of photography disagreed, telling his news agency, “We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is.”

For most of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have been shut off from the grim realities of conflict. During his two terms in office, George W. Bush banned photographers from taking images of coffins containing U.S. war dead. And U.S. newspapers have rarely showed dead soldiers in Iraq – a kind of self-imposed ban that the U.S. military encouraged by punishing journalists who deviated from its strict photography rules. The pattern was set from the start of the Iraq War in 2003, when the U.S. media were reluctant to show gruesome images of casualties – images that were used on Al-Jazeera and other media outlets outside the United States.

Peter Howe, the former picture editor of the New York Times Magazine and a former war photographer, told me for a story I did on war and photography, “Atrocities and torture occur on every side and in every war. This is a fact of war. The problem is that this country has not really come to terms with the facts of war.”

Howe told me that in 2004, soon after the release of his book, “Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer.” Howe said that other countries were much more attune to the “experience of war.” In his first months as president, Barack Obama lifted the photo ban of U.S. military coffins. Still, the impulse lingers to minimize images of fallen soldiers. No surprise that the loudest cry is coming from the nation’s Defense Secretary since polls show that support for the Afghan war is fading fast. Images of dying American soldiers will only expedite the feeling that Obama made a mistake by ratcheting up Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan.

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2 Responses to Images of war dead: Why don’t Americans see more?

  1. joelisi says:

    Jonathan: I just read your article. I confess, I was drawn to it by the photograph of the flag drapped coffins on the C-130. As a former Marine I was disappointed to learn that a photograph of a dying Marine, 21 year old, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard was published by a number of papers throughout the country. Disappointed but not surprised. I don’t buy the AP Director of Photography’s claim that it was their “duty” to publish to show the “realities of war.” I suspect a little politics is involved in the decision. I believe the intent here is to erode the new president’s position on the war in Afghanistan by weakening the public support he now enjoys. The policy not to show photographs of our dead or dying warriors is not new. It was not started by GW Bush. It began long ago during WW I. I admit there probably was politics involved in that decison too. After all, it can’t be good for the morale of the home front to see our fallen soldiers on the front page. I think we are missing the point on the use of such pictures. The reason it is not good to publish these pictures is because of the pain and grief it causes the surviving family members. It will be hard enough for the Bernards to deal with the loss of their Marine. Should they have to be subjected to a photograph of him dying? If Lance Corporal Bernard had been shot while on leave on Long Island, and it was captured by a local news photographer, would that picture run on the front page? I doubt it. Semper Fidelis.

    • Thanks for your comment. As I wrote this posting, I thought: “What if my offspring — years from now — had their image published under similar circumstances. How would I react?” Simple: I would be angered beyond belief. I would do what Bernard’s father did: Condemn the Associated Press for displaying that image. Yes, I might change my mind after days of reflection, but the anger would still be there. But as a journalist who (now) doesn’t have a son in battle, I can be a bit more objective about the story. You’re right to say that the policy of limiting photos of the war dead goes back much farther than George W. Bush — and that politics played a part. Even during the Civil War, when photography was first becoming a popular tool, there was public debate about images that showed dead soldiers. I believe this debate is important, even if you consider it reprehensible to publish images of soldiers such as Bernard.

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