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.