Not a Pretty Picture

Looking this war in the face proves difficult when the press itself won't even put in an appearance

"History," Hegel said, "is a slaughterhouse." And war is how the slaughter is carried out.

If we believe that the present war in Iraq is just and necessary, why do we shrink from looking at the damage it wreaks? Why does the government that ordered the war and hails it as an instrument of good then ask us to respect those who died in the cause by not describing and depicting how they died? And why, in response, have newspapers gone along with Washington and grown timid about showing photos of the killing and maiming? What kind of honor does this bestow on those who are sent to fight in the nation's name?

The Iraq war inspires these questions.

Baghdad E.R. doctors examine a child who was fatally wounded in an aerial bombing attack.
photo: David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News
Baghdad E.R. doctors examine a child who was fatally wounded in an aerial bombing attack.

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An Iraqi comforts a wounded fellow civilian who was shot in the arm and chest by U.S. troops after not heeding warning shots.
photo: David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News
The government has blocked the press from soldiers' funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The government has prevented the press from taking pictures of the caskets that arrive day after day at the Dover Air Force Base military mortuary in Delaware, the world's largest funeral home. And the government, by inferring that citizens who question its justifications for this war are disloyal Americans, has intimidated a compliant press from making full use of pictures of the dead and wounded. Also worth noting: President Bush's latest rationale for the war is that he is trying to "spread democracy" through the world. He says these new democracies must have a "free press." Yet he says all this while continuing to restrict and limit the American press. There's a huge disconnect here.

More than 1,600 American soldiers have died in this war that began a little over two years ago. Wounded Americans number about 12,000. No formal count is kept of the Iraqi civilian dead and wounded, but it is far greater than the military toll. But can you recall the last time your hometown newspaper ran a picture spread of these human beings lying crumpled at the scene of the slaughter? And when was the last time you saw a picture of a single fallen American soldier at such a scene?

Yes, some photos of such bloodshed have been published at times over the span of this war. But they have become sparser and sparser, while the casualty rate has stayed the same or, frequently, shot higher. At the moment, five GIs die every two days.

Some readers may object to my use of the word slaughter. I do respect other points of view. But I served in the military, and as a reporter I covered several wars—in India, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I came away persuaded that whether one considers a particular war necessary or misguided, the military goal in armed combat is always to kill and thus render helpless those on the other side. That being the case, what is a government's basis for depriving the public of candid press coverage of what war is all about? How else can voters make informed decisions about a war their government has led them into? The true reason why a government—in this case, the Bush administration—tries to censor and sanitize coverage is to prevent a public outcry against the war, an outcry that might bring down the administration.

The photographs that accompany this piece are not gratuitously violent. They are merely real. All but one were taken by David Leeson, a highly regarded photographer at The Dallas Morning News. He and his Morning News colleague Cheryl Diaz Meyer were awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in breaking-news photography "for their eloquent photographs depicting both the violence and poignancy of the war with Iraq."

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Zahraa Ali, four years old, lies in the burn unit of a Baghdad hospital. Her family was hit by an aerial bombing attack while driving. Her parents, 24-year-old brother, and nine-year-old sister died. Zahraa eventually died. Only her three-month-old sister survived.
photo: David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News
I realize there are other sides to the story. One is the government's side. President Bush says that none of the government's actions can be characterized as censorship or intimidation of the press. He says he is merely honoring the fallen by protecting the privacy of their families in their time of grief. A New York Times columnist—his name is not needed; the issue is what's important—offered another slant a week ago. He called for less coverage of the war's violence because the press was "frantically competing to get gruesome pictures and details for broadcasts and front pages" at a time when there is "really nothing new to say." He seemed to think the use of these "gruesome pictures" was on the rise—though others in the media-watching industry, such as Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, have been recording a decline. The Times columnist said the press was, wittingly or not, assisting the "media strategy" of the suicide bombers and their leaders.

A columnist, of course, is permitted to offer up pretty much any opinion he or she chooses, but still it's very odd to see a journalist—since we historically have always pressed for transparency—recommending that information be left out of stories. He insisted he was "not advocating official censorship" but simply asking the media for "a little restraint." Also, he cited the press controls used by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a model for achieving "restraint." Giuliani, the column said, had told his police department "to stop giving out details of daily crime in time for reporters' deadlines," in order to keep "the day's most grisly crime" off the 11 o'clock television news.

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An Iraqi civilian, struck in the head by shrapnel from an aerial bombing, collapses, and an army medic rushes over to help.
photo: David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News
I don't hold much esteem for the usual crime-and-catastrophe formula on most late-news shows, but I have even less for contentions that withholding information from the public is good for them. Because we are a country of diverse culture groupings, there will always be differences of view, about war photographs and stories, over matters of taste and "shock" issues. But, while the reporter or photographer must consider these impact and shock issues his primary mission has to be one of getting the story right. And getting it right means not omitting anything important out of timidity or squeamishness. When I would return from a war scene, I always felt I had to write the story first for myself and then for the reader. The goal was to come as close as possible to make the reader smell, feel, see, and touch what I had witnessed that day. "Pay attention," was my mental message to the reader. "People are dying. This is important."

A generation later, the photographer David Leeson, whom I talked with on the phone, has similar passions.

He said: "I understand the criticisms about blood and gore. I don't seek that. When I approach a body on the ground after a battle, I'm determined to give dignity to that person's life and photograph him with respect. But sometimes, as with my pictures of child victims, the greatest dignity and respect you can give them is to show the horror they have suffered, the absolutely gruesome horror." Leeson went on: "War is madness. Often when I was in it, I would think of my work as dedicated to stopping it. But I know that's unrealistic. When I considered the readers who would see my photos, I felt I was saying to them: 'If I hurt inside, I want you to hurt too. If something brings me to tears, I want to bring you to tears too.' "

I don't see any place for "restraint" in this picture.

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