It’s a journalist’s job to accurately describe how things look, and that job is especially difficult in wartime. The first step is to gather eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence, but then comes the truly daunting challenge: deciding that the public deserves to know the gory truth.
In the last few weeks, a growing number of U.S. media outlets have shown both reporting skills and conscience by distributing disturbing images of war. The images range from photos of U.S. soldiers in coffins obtained by thememoryhole.org, to the saga of a soldier losing his leg in Doonesbury, to the photos of Iraqis being tortured by U.S. soldiers that 60 Minutes II broadcast last night. None of the pictures are beautiful and all of them hurt. Predictably, the release of so many negative images of war has spawned a backlash of attempted censorship.
But as the U.S. prepares to mount an all-out attack on Fallujah, the need for uncensored war imagery has never been more compelling. When the marines attacked Fallujah in early April, Iraqi hospital officials estimated upwards of 600 civilian casualties. But military officials called the estimates “highly exaggerated,” and the story was buried. Another round of civilian casualties in Fallujah is inevitable, and American voters need to see those dead bodies.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is doing everything it can to cover them up. Was it a coincidence that Colin Powell went to Qatar this week to protest war coverage by Al Jazeera—including the civilian casualties? It’s unclear what things look like in Fallujah now—Bush says “mostly normal.” But over the next few weeks, U.S. media executives will likely get another chance to decide: Does the public deserve bland reassurances, or pictures of dead children? Sometimes the truth hurts.