Censorship American-Style: Hide the US War Dead from the American People

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CommonDreams.org

Censorship American-Style: Hide the US War Dead from the American People

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.

Lance Cpl. Josua Bernard, fatally wounded in Afghanistan
Lance Cpl. Josua Bernard, fatally wounded in Afghanistan

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 Bradey 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.

Dead soldiers at Civil War Battle of Antietam, by Matthew Brady
Dead soldiers at Civil War Battle of Antietam, by Matthew Brady

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.

Dead US soldiers in World War II
Dead US soldiers in World War II

Although it was a much less popular war, photos of American dead were plentiful from the Korean War.

US Dead in the Korean War
US Dead in the Korean War

Vietnam was awash in press photographers, and the Pentagon never banned them from depicting American casualties.

Dead US soldier being taken from battlefield in Vietnam
Dead US soldier being taken from battlefield in Vietnam

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 administation 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?

Life Magazine ran this photo of dead marines in the Pacific in 1943
Life Magazine ran this photo of dead marines in the Pacific in 1943

Were the photographers and news organizations who showed America's dead in Vietnam being insensitive?

Slain US soldier in a dry rice paddy in Vietnam
Slain US soldier in a dry rice paddy in Vietnam

 

Were the photographers and news organizations who showed America's dead in Korea being insensitive?

Dead Marines in Korea
Dead Marines in Korea

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?

Dead Marines in Fallujah, Iraq
Dead Marines in Fallujah, Iraq

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, like these:

Body of dead Viet Cong soldier being abused by US troops
Body of dead Viet Cong soldier being abused by US troops

Dead Iraqi fighter
Dead Iraqi fighter

Dead Taliban fighter
Dead Taliban fighter

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

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). He is the founding editor of ThisCantBeHappening.

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