The Obama administration's freak-out, as expressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, over the Associated Press Agency's belated circulation of a photograph of a dying US soldier in Afghanistan, Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard, is the latest of example of the hypocrisy of US authorities who claim to be concerned about the feelings of American military families, while really simply desiring to censor the war's horrors from the eyes of the American people.
The truth: Americans until only the last 18 years, have been able to see the carnage of war as it has been felt by our own troops from as long ago as there were cameras. Pioneering photographer and war chronicler Matthew Brady brought home the horrors of the US Civil War with photos like this one of dead Union and Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Antietam.
In World War II, while the military tried to prevent publication of the photos of dead American troops at first, by 1944, President Roosevelt lifted the ban, hoping that the images would fire up American resolve on the home front.
Although it was a much less popular war, photos of American dead were plentiful from the Korean War.
Vietnam was awash in press photographers, and the Pentagon never banned them from depicting American casualties.
In fact, when American policy-makers talk about the "lesson of Vietnam," they generally aren't talking about the real lesson of not sending American troops to fight unpopular wars, or of not intervening on the side of corrupt regimes in wars of national liberation, or of not fighting in wars where there is no chance of the US winning. They're talking about the "lesson" of not letting the American people learn the real nature and cost of the war in question.
That's why journalists -- and particularly American journalists -- since Vietnam have been kept on short leashes, and why they are vetted by Pentagon officials and hired media "experts" before they are allowed to be "embedded" with units in the field. It's why the Reagan administration had a navy destroyer turn its guns on, and threaten to sink a small boat carrying reporters trying to make its way to Grenada to cover the US invasion of that island. And it's why since the Gulf War in 1990-91, photographs of American battlefield dead have been banned.
AP deserves credit for finally breaking the ban and offering its photo of a dying soldier, shot in a firefight with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan--even if the news agency did wait three weeks to offer the photo to subscribers. The real shame is that so few American newspapers and electronic media organizations chose to run that photo.
Gates claims that AP was "insensitive" to the dead soldier's relatives, but it's hard to see how that can be. The real insensitive thing would be to try to hide his death from the public, as the Pentagon wanted to do. Hell, if the Afghan War is worth fighting, it should be worth dying for, and if it's worth dying for, and if young soldier Bernard gave his life for his country, his death and the manner of his death should not be hidden from his countrypeople. We should all see the terrible price he paid acting in our name.
Were the photographers and news organizations who showed American soldiers dead on the beach in the Pacific in World War II being insensitive?
Were the photographers and news organizations who showed America's dead in Vietnam being insensitive?
Were the photographers and news organizations who showed America's dead in Korea being insensitive?
Was the photographer and news organization which dared to break the ban and publish a photo of America's dead in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq being insensitive?
I don't think so.
Moreover, there is a terrible double standard at work here, if news organizations accept the censorship or deem it inappropriate to show dead American bodies, but go ahead and show dead bodies of the enemy -- photographs that the media seem to have no problem publishing (though surely it must be painful for their families).
After all, if all we see are dead enemy fighters, it might give the false impression that the war in question -- in this case the Afghanistan War, or what might now be called Obama's War -- is a one-sided affair where the only terrible casualties are those suffered by the "enemy," not by "our boys."
Enough with the censorship! If we are going to be a warlike nation, if we are going to have a public that cheers everytime the government ships off men and women to fight and kill overseas in countries that most Americans cannot even locate on a globe, then let's make sure that everyone at least gets to see the blood and gore in full, including our own, and of course, also the civilian casualties of our military.
Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-area journalist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). His work can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net