A reader writes:
I’m sorry I missed the recent discussion about war photos. My contribution: I remember my eighth grade history teacher, in 1971, showing us photos her husband had taken as part of an American force that liberated a concentration camp in World War II. “These aren’t the worst,” she told us, “I can’t show you those. They are too terrible.” The photos she showed us were among the worst I’ve ever seen.
In April, 1979, shortly after W. Eugene Smith’s death, Popular Photography published some of his photos, including a few from the Pacific theater in World War II. It was the first time I had seen them, and I remember this one vividly. It’s hard to see how Smith’s photo from 70 years ago is so different from any of the photos you have posted. It was originally published in Life Magazine on August 28, 1944.
The iconic photo by AP photographer Nick Ut, of nine year old Kim Phuc, naked, running away from her village, her body burning from napalm, was published on the front page of the New York Times on June 9, 1972. The front page. Today they’ve gone so far off track they can’t even bring themselves to talk about torture.
Life Magazine and the New York Times didn’t shy away from publishing those photos, and neither should you. The alternative is that the only evidence of the Iraq war in twenty years will be photos of cheering Iraqis tearing down statues of Saddam.
Photos like these should disturb us, and shake us to our core, and give us nightmares, and the next time someone tries to drag us off to war, we should get out these photos and look at them and remind ourselves just how much war really costs, and remember that whatever we’re going to war about had better be so goddamn important that we can look at those photos and say, “Yes, even this will be worth it.”
Please, keep posting photos. Yes, they’re disturbing, but this is too important.
Another quotes Christian Caryl:
You can search the seven years of US broadcast news from Iraq almost in vain for images of dead US soldiers, or the grotesque effects of a suicide bombing on buildings or bodies, or the corpses of Iraqi families who had been riddled with bullets by nervous young Americans manning nighttime checkpoints.
Caryl isn’t wrong, but there’s a context here: Virtually every time a news organization published those photos, there was a massive and abusive pushback from readers and viewers, who saw every graphic photo as a simple case of exploitation. At the time the Iraq War started, I was a reporter in Connecticut. One of the local newspapers (not mine) published a full front page story on fighting, with a prominent photo of an American soldier being carried off in a stretcher after being wounded.
It was a difficult image to see, but there was nothing crass or tasteless about it. Yet readers in Connecticut – not exactly a hotbed of support for George W. Bush – reacted violently. The newspaper was accused of being unpatriotic; of exploiting a solider’s death; of throwing the corpse of a son or father on its front cover to sell newspapers (it actually wasn’t clear if the solider was dead), etc., etc. No voices were raised in support of the decision.
In a perfect world, a media outlet would simply ignore the criticisms and move forward, but that sort of violent reaction is going to take its toll on the people who decide what will be on the front page each day. Combine that with the 9/11 fear you and I both felt, a polarized public united only in its hatred of the media and a shaky bottom line for many outlets, and I can see why editors might be leery about publishing those images. Was it cowardly? Probably – but as Caryl writes, “Some outstanding (news) coverage resulted nonetheless, but little of it seems to have been absorbed by the public at large.”
I don’t excuse the failures of the media leading up to the invasion, but public opinion can sometimes be an immovable object. Journalism isn’t even close to an unstoppable force.
(Photo: The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens of the Republic of Vietnam, almost entirely civilians and the majority of them women and children, perpetrated by US Army forces on March 16 1968. Here are the bodies of some of the victims lying along a road. By Universal History Archive/Getty Images)