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Shooting War

Why news photographs don’t show the true cost of combat

A full-size reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s famous reaction to the bombing of Guernica hangs near the entrance to the UN Security Council. The detailed canvas, which portrays women, children, and animals screaming in terror during a Spanish Civil War assault, is one of the few globally recognized antiwar icons produced during the 20th century, a fitting backdrop for the deliberations of a world body dedicated to preserving peace. During the 2003 UN debate that preceded the war in Iraq, a request came from Washington to place a large blue curtain over Guernica. Evidently, the State Department found horses writhing in pain, broken human beings, buildings in shambles, and crying birds too jarring a background for the UN ambassador’s and the Secretary of State’s explanations of why war was necessary.

If war managers are afraid of a Cubist painting, how must they regard actual photographs of war? There is something about a photograph that invites thoughtful analysis (far more than the fleeting images of television, the late Susan Sontag argued). You are curious about the characters’ motivations. You wonder what happened before, what happened next, what was happening outside the frame. Wartime photographs provoke their own special questions: Who are the victims and the perpetrators? Who deserves compassion and who should be brought to justice? Who is responsible for the deaths? Are there any heroes?

To war managers, photography is a risky medium. Like Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of six marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, an image can underscore the bravery, sacrifice, patriotism, and friendship that sometimes accompany combat. Or, like Huynh Cong Ut’s picture of napalm-scorched Vietnamese children running down a road, a photo can take away the public’s appetite for war. With such powerful properties, war photography is carefully managed, and always has been. There are things they don’t want you to see. But who are “they,” and how do they control the kinds of images that filter from the battle zone into public consciousness?

The earliest wartime photography dates from the Crimean War. The typical picture of the period shows uniformed officers, carefully posed, at rest, or standing around a table at some distance from the scene of battle. Exposure times in those days were on the order of 20 seconds. Photographers were therefore limited in their movements, and capturing events on the battlefield itself was impossible.

The U.S. Civil War, occurring some 15 years later, supplied the first pictures of war dead. Some were quite explicit and clearly conveyed the horror of the battlefield. Their appearance also prompted the argument that presenting more graphic images of the battlefield to the public might not always be a good idea. Consider a New York Times editorial on a series of Civil War photographs shown at Mathew Brady’s Manhattan gallery in October 1862, a month after the battle of Antietam:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. . . . These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of the magnifying-glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches.

Thus, photography immediately led to a tension between two contending perspectives on war coverage. The first reflected the ability to present battlefield catastrophes in a “true light.” Photographs offered a seemingly straightforward reality, an opportunity to present the horrors of war and thereby encourage public opposition. On the other hand, harsh pictures of the battlefield produced simultaneous recoil that prompted some to argue that the public needed to be protected from powerful, rude, or subversive images. The reality of war was in “poor taste.” Photographs could bring the war experience closer to the public, but photographs might themselves be considered a type of assault. Guidelines had to be established.

Explicit pictures do not automatically create opposition to war but on balance lend weight in that direction. In most circumstances, governments recognize this potential and many have followed a policy of censorship. They try to control the flow of images coming out of the conflict. The terrifying pictures of trench warfare in World War I did not appear until after the war was over. In World War II, photographs of dead U.S. servicemen could not be found until 21 months after Pearl Harbor. At that point, national leaders decided that they wanted the public to know that the war would be long and costly. Policy changed and combat photography that embraced sacrifice became more prominent.

The contemporary reader would find Life magazine almost pornographic in its reflection of the horror. A photo that appeared in February 1943, for example, showed the charred head of a Japanese soldier, which U.S. troops had propped on a burned-out Japanese tank. A similar picture, even of a leading al Qaeda terrorist or one of the Ba’ath regime leaders targeted in the set of “playing cards” prepared by the Pentagon, would today be unthinkable. The Pentagon had to think twice before distributing photographs of the carefully prepared bodies of Saddam’s two sons after they were killed by U.S. forces in a raid.

During World War II, photographs of dead American soldiers were never gruesome. The cost was communicated, but within a particular set of rules. A typical shot would show bodies, faces averted, sprawled on a Pacific island beach or trapped against invasion defenses placed by the Germans. Photos of mutilated bodies were not published, nor were pictures showing American corpses being handled as if they were inanimate objects. Nonetheless, dead American soldiers were shown to the American public. The scale and frenzy of the war came through even though censors withheld photographs of gaping wounds or of American POWs who had been abused by their captors. Heroic images still predominated over those that showed casualties, but the fact that death could be seen and felt bespoke a certain confidence that the public would accept powerful visual reminders of sacrifice in a war of significant scale and mobilization.

Showing the human costs is much more problematic in a war such as the one the United States is currently waging in Iraq. Unlike Word War II, during which the country was fully mobilized toward the war effort, the fighting in Iraq is a “conditional” war. There’s no draft, no planting of victory gardens, and comparatively little demonization of the enemy in popular culture. Casualties and other war costs are supposed to be kept “low,” and the level to which the public is asked to sacrifice is, except in the case of military personnel and their families, minimal. These are the terms under which all our wars in the post-

Vietnam era have been waged. Support for a conditional war can be more easily overturned than support for a fully mobilized conflict. A conspicuous public acknowledgment of honors for the Iraq War’s dead and wounded would therefore run the risk of engaging the population in its own assessment of whether the losses were worthwhile.

The Pentagon’s solution has been to hide casualties. There have been remarkably few photographs of the thousands of wounded at Walter Reed and other military hospitals. Save for a few carefully chosen photo ops with the President, the roughly 20,000 wounded (by official count) in late 2006 have all but disappeared from view.

The Pentagon has also enforced a ban on photographs of coffins and body containers returning through Dover Air Force Base. The policy began during the 1991 Gulf War and continued during the Clinton administration, although exceptions were made for the victims of the 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni harbor. The Pentagon went back to a total ban in November 2001, shortly after the bombing campaign began in Afghanistan. In March 2003, Bush issued a directive stating that there would be no coverage of “deceased military personnel returning to or departing from” air bases. In 2005, in response to a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the Pentagon released a limited number of its own pictures. But news organizations are still prevented from taking photographs.

Defense Department officials maintain that the restriction is necessary to protect mourners and to ensure their privacy. What is interesting is how many military families oppose the Pentagon’s inclination to hide the dead. In an October 2004 study, 51 percent of military families thought that permitting the photographs would increase respect for their sacrifices, while only 8 percent felt that it would have the opposite effect. At least one mother protested her son’s death in Iraq by inviting the media, against regulations, to film the return of his casket.

Fit to Print?

Besides official policy, there is another layer in the selection process that determines what kinds of war photos come before the public. Once photos become available, the news media comb through them to decide which ones they will run. What we see of war, then, is determined to a large degree by editors.

Curious to know what sorts of decisions were being made on my behalf, I decided to study the newspaper that arrives on my own doorstep each morning, the Boston Globe. I reviewed the 465 photographs that appeared on the front page and in a special section titled “War in Iraq” between March 20 and April 17, 2003. On a typical day, the Globe carried two or three pictures on the front page and another fifteen to twenty in the special section. The photographs were chosen from a daily pool of 2,500 to 3,000 available to the Globe through various news services.

One of the most important findings is that of the 465 pictures, only 12 were of U.S. soldiers who had been killed in the conflict. Of these, all but one were similar to wallet-sized snapshots, taken in the United States, with the soldier usually in dress uniform. Only an additional 7 photos were of U.S. wounded. All of these followed a convention in which the injured soldier—face, body, and nature of wound obscured—is carried on a stretcher by his (or her) comrades. Eight pictures were of U.S. POWs or MIAs. There were also very few pictures of Iraqi dead or wounded (14, or a total of 3 percent). Seven pictures showed Iraqi civilians grieving.

Only three photos showed a person suffering physical pain, among them a moving photo of a wounded Iraqi girl in a Baghdad hospital. Despite the limited number of such pictures, some readers called the newspaper to complain about what they felt were some overly graphic presentations of war. “Please, please, it’s so awful as it is, this war, please don’t print photos like that,” said one in response to a large color photo of a dead Iraqi soldier sprawled in front of a destroyed car. Another reader worried that children would see the picture and added, “This is something I would expect of the Herald or a tabloid—it is beneath the Globe.”

There were more than five times as many pictures of soldiers giving aid or liberating Iraqis as there were of Iraqis who had been killed or wounded (83 to 14). Five percent of the photographs were of Kurds, often portrayed in the heroic mode of scanning the horizon with a pair of binoculars. Antiwar protest in the United States was reflected in only 3 percent of the photos. Of these, 75 percent appeared in the first four days of the war. Thereafter, pictures of the U.S. antiwar movement almost entirely disappeared from the newspaper.

Flash forward one year. Washington was still fighting a war that appeared inconclusive and yet carried steadily increasing human, political, and economic costs. In one particularly difficult period, four civilian contractors were abducted and killed. Photographs of their burned bodies hanging from a Fallujah bridge appeared in many newspapers. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke and photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners appeared in many major news outlets. For more and more people, poor preparations for the occupation, continued fighting, and other self-defeating aspects of the situation brought back memories of Vietnam. Public approval of the war in Iraq plummeted. What did the public see of the new circumstances?

To learn how the Globe’s selection of photographs had changed, I compared the 200 images that appeared during “Phase II”—April 1 to May 17, 2004—with those published a year earlier. The main difference was in the number of pictures that conveyed “giving aid” and “liberator” themes, each of which dropped dramatically in 2004. These constituted almost 20 percent of the photographs during Phase I, but only one picture of U.S. soldiers giving aid appeared in Phase II. None fell into the “liberator” category. There were also fewer pictures of Iraq and more photos of officials in Washington, D.C. Photos of the wounded and dead increased slightly, but did not change significantly in style or convention.

On the one hand, then, the choice of images in 2004 reflected fewer of the themes associated with public support for the war. On the other hand, the photos continued to avoid explicit portrayals of death or pain. They still presented the conflict according to rules that shield most of us from the true tragedy of war.

To find out more about the process by which particular photographs appeared in the paper, I spoke with Paula Nelson, the deputy director of photography for the Boston Globe and the person most responsible for managing the selection process. Beyond the rule prohibiting the use of photos in which the dead can be identified, none of the pictures Nelson received from news sources had, to her knowledge, been screened in any way. She and her colleagues, she told me, would make decisions case by case, but they also tried to develop guidelines, asking questions such as: When is a photo too gruesome? Is it going to be in color or black and white? Is it too bloody? Is the dead person identifiable?

If a picture was deemed too grisly, Nelson said, it was unlikely to go on the front page, but the paper might consider running more graphic images in black and white. “We did have an amazing photo that took a great deal of discussion on the day that Baghdad fell,” she recalled. “I thought it really took us back to World War II. These soldiers were inside this building. It was bombed out with broken bricks and plaster and all that, and there is a body covered with dust on the ground. The soldiers are standing there and their faces are really intense and they have the whole gear, all the armor and guns. It was just a really compelling photo and I wanted to run it in black and white. One of the top editors decided not to run it because he said it was too graphic.”

On another occasion, Nelson encountered resistance when she wanted to use a photo showing a bombed car with charred bodies inside. The editors compromised by cropping the photo so that only some of the bodies appeared. “We still got the message across of war and how awful it is but not so much as to shock people,” she said. “I think if you go too far, people don’t look at it. What you want is for people to look at it and to study it and to say this is an awful thing.”

Paula Nelson appeared to carry out her work with competence, intelligence, and sensitivity. She also seemed skeptical about many aspects of the war. And yet the Globe published so few pictures that focused on the human cost. The net result of the photo selection process was a fairly clean view of the war, even as Nelson thought of her work as contributing to just the opposite message. I asked her if she would have preferred to run more pictures that could give readers a deeper sense of the nature of war.

“You know,” she said, “there is an argument that the American press doesn’t show those pictures because they have ulterior motives. But there is also an argument that the American press doesn’t show that kind of stuff under any circumstances because its audience is not able to handle it. So papers also make decisions based on their readership.”

Marginalizing the Body

Every photograph carries a message. The first impulse of an administration at war is to attempt to control the flow of such messages to the public. The ban on photos of caskets is just a small part of the Pentagon’s efforts to push journalists away from stories that convey the cost of war. Photojournalists have had their film seized and destroyed by the military and even had warning shots fired over their heads as they attempted to cover controversial incidents, such as the downing of helicopters by hostile fire. In November 2003, representatives of 30 media organizations sent a joint letter to the Pentagon complaining that they had “documented numerous examples of U.S. troops physically harassing journalists and, in some cases, confiscating or ruining equipment, digital camera disks, and videotapes.” War managers still want to direct the public gaze so that only certain themes can be seen.

Bodies—be they American, Afghan, British, or Iraqi—have largely disappeared from public view. The main reason is that the visibility of the killed and injured demands a moral accounting. The public could see bodies from World War II battlefields because Washington was confident that U.S. citizens would think that the killing, while certainly sad, was also necessary in the context of a just fight against fascism. Government officials no longer think that the public will come to the same conclusion. Instead, they limit the possibilities of seeing the explicit evidence of war and hamper people’s ability to make moral judgments that take this loss into consideration. As one social commentator has observed, the preference of war managers is for “a system of representation which marginalizes the presence of the body in war, fetishizes machines, and personalizes international conflicts while depersonalizing the people who die in them.”

A democratic public sphere contains controversy. But most who manage the flow of visuals from the battlefield want to “protect” the public from the rudeness of killing. News executives and editors also share a sense of what constitutes good taste when presenting the tragedies of combat. And to some degree, they are in sync with their audience: many people do become upset when they see what war does to human bodies. But that begs the question of whether people should be protected from upsetting realities. There is also evidence that people would prefer to make up their minds in a visual context that includes the tangible costs of war. Certainly, many military families would prefer that their sacrifices be acknowledged more directly. But government officials would like to discourage that from happening because the public may well conclude that it is not photographs of war but war itself that is in poor taste.

PAUL JOSEPH is a professor of sociology and director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Tufts, where he has been teaching since 1975. He is the author of books on Vietnam, nuclear weapons policy, and the security debate after the end of the Cold War, as well as the newly published Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful?, from which this article was adapted.

Photo: U.S. Soldiers Occupying President’s Palace, Bagdad, April 2003. AP Photos/John Moore

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