Monday, September 7, 2009



Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson recently published a “disturbing image” in the New York Times. See Specifically, she dared to snap a picture of a U.S. Marine moments after he suffered a mortal injury in Afghanistan. The image shows two comrades struggling to stabilize him. His lips are weakly parted; he stares at the ground as if in shock. His bloody leg (or stump) is clearly visible. His rifle lies powerless at his side. According to the article that accompanies the picture, the Marine died several days later. His father learned that Ms. Jacobson had the picture and asked her not to publish it. He did not want the picture to “sully the memory of his son.”

Ms. Jacobson published the picture anyway. Defense Secretary Robert Gates angrily denounced her decision. Although he acknowledged she had a “legal and constitutional right” to publish it, he claimed that “common decency” and “taste” should have stayed her hand. In response, Ms. Jacobson pointed out that she complied with the Defense Department rule for publishing “U.S. casualty photographs,” namely, only after the Department confirmed the casualty and notified the soldier’s family. This satisfied her sole legal obligation. From a strictly legal perspective, the fact that the Marine’s family objected to publication made no difference; Ms. Jacobson followed the only rule that constrained her.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Jacobson’s decision sparked a heated debate on the New York Times’ website. The debate broke into two camps: (1) Those who believe that the press must always respect a family’s wishes and (2) those who demand to see the “truth of war” uncensored and uncut. One angry commenter even went so far as to say that “acts like this” (ie, photographers defying military families’ wishes) were reason to “revoke the First Amendment.” But another applauded Ms. Jacobson for delivering a “dose of truth” about a war that seems all-too distant and “sanitized” in American eyes.

This is not a new debate. Americans have always been queasy about seeing pictures of their own men dead (or dying) on the battlefield. We have been in many wars since the advent of photography. Matthew Brady was the first man to photograph dead soldiers after the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. His work sparked outrage and disgust. He said he was merely trying to show “what really happens in war” beyond all the glorious rhetoric and saber-rattling. Despite his commitment to “telling the truth” about war, the U.S. military took steps to curtail such publications. These efforts culminated in complicated rules about publishing “U.S. casualty images.” These are the rules that Ms. Jacobson’s image now calls into debate.

Interestingly, the military’s rules about publishing “U.S. casualty images” only apply to U.S. service personnel. If a civilian is killed, there is no rule prohibiting a journalist from immediately publishing the image. Similarly, if a soldier from the enemy army dies, a journalist does not have to wait until his family is notified. And naturally the journalist need not heed the foreign soldier’s family’s objections to publication (if they even know their son has died fighting the Americans). The U.S. military defends its rule because it wants to “uphold the dignity and memory of troops who give their lives for their country.” Yet that concern does not apply to any other human being who dies as our troops fulfill their mission. At the same time, the rule leads to a skewed impression: Americans only get to see dead enemy troops and civilians, but never dead Americans. In the end, this blinds the American public to the brutal reality of war. After all, American troops die in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. We know this from the “official casualty rolls.” Yet those rolls do not begin to tell the same story as pictures showing soldiers dying.

If America wants to wage war, it should know the costs. War is not about animated maps and strategic objectives narrated on the FOX News Channel. Nor is it even about geopolitical balancing or justice. Rather, for the men who fight war, it is about fear, carnage, brutality and death. For the men who fight war, it is an agonizing sensory experience. The sights, sounds and sensations of war irreversibly alter those who experience them. (See, e.g., All Quiet on the Western Front). Yet these sensory impressions rarely make their way back home for everyone else to see. War veterans cannot even start to “explain” what it is like to be in combat and to see young men suddenly die. Yet photographs can at least partially convey the sensory impressions that language can never capture. In so doing, they tell an essential story that would otherwise be forever lost. Put simply, when the government censors images capturing the visual, visceral, unforgiving “essence of war,” it deludes the public. If the public really wants to know the sacrifices men make on the battlefield, it should know about the uncensored brutality they see every day.

Yet many strongly disagree with this assertion. They say that the public’s “right to know” about war’s brutality must yield to the individual soldier’s family’s interest in freedom from the emotional turmoil that flows from seeing their dying son paraded in newspapers. They say that military families have a right to “cherish certain memories” about sons who die in combat, even if those memories are inaccurate or false. While it is true that military families will suffer immense pain upon seeing such images, their pain must be compared with the broader public interest in knowing the true cost of war. I venture that it is better for the public to know how bloody and senseless war is than to fall into ignorant delusion about its human price. The only way to truly inform the public about war’s price is to inflict additional emotional pain on the families of the individual soldiers whose dying bodies we see captured on film.

This sounds harsh. Yet this is the only way to drive home the cost of war. Nothing else even remotely tells the story.

My heart goes out to the father who lost his son in Afghanistan. I am truly sorry that he must bear the additional burden of seeing his son’s final moments in a photograph. I am also sorry that the public, too, can now see that image. But I venture that this image does far more than inflict individual emotional pain on those who knew the soldier who died. It does not disparage his memory, nor does it dilute his sacrifice. Rather, it honestly shows what he endured. It shows what war does to men. It reveals that there is nothing glorious or heroic about war. In so doing, it educates the public. When the public knows what war really costs—in visual, visceral, human terms—we can only hope that they will be less eager to start them in the future.

America needs to understand that wars have costs. Yet rules such as the military’s ban on “casualty photographs” blind us to those costs. They also deceive the public into believing that “we do the killing, but not the dying.” Ms. Jacobson’s photograph unsettles these assumptions, and rightly so. It illustrates that war is not fun for anyone, American or not. It is important for Americans to know that before launching another military excursion somewhere in the world.

Europeans learned the cost of war between 1914 and 1945. That is why they criticize us so much for our willingness to start new ones.


SteveW said...

The actual body coming home is much more painful to the family than the photo being published, so I really don't care about the feelings of the family for the purposes of this debate. I'm all for publishing photos of war. However, it's a pipe dream to think that we don't understand the true costs and that this will make us reluctant to go to war.

The grim reality is that we do understand the cost of war and that we nevertheless continue to engage in it. This is much more difficult to deal with than to imagine that we are somehow sheltered from it and don't know what we're getting into.

I think only when we realize how ineffective war is at achieving the purported goals will we get truly reluctant to engage in it. Our track record in the last handful of wars should be pushing us in this direction, but we shall see.

Anonymous said...

great post.

sometimes I wonder if wars are started when a man sees himself in his enemy, and realizes that killing him is the only way to stop him.

Timoteo said...

These photos SHOULD be published--perhaps if more families took a good look at what happens, they might not be so gung ho to encourage their children to offer themselves up as cannon fodder for whatever agenda (often misguided) those in power at the time are promoting.
The Vietnam war would have dragged on longer if the appalling reality of war had not been shown to the American people through the media.