Before the emergence of photography, war was portrayed in heroic and even religious dimensions in oil paintings and sculptures. "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and "The Death of General Wolfe" connoted courage but also, in the case of the Wolfe painting, even divine ascendancy.
The photographic image evolved as the record of history in the first half of the 19th century, and some of the most enduring images are from Matthew Brady, an entrepreneurial New York socialite photographer. Andrew Jackson, J.C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass became real-life historical figures, rather than marble busts or romanticized oil paintings.
As the Civil War began, Brady and his staff jumped at the chance to film battle scenes and record the most enduring portraits of Lincoln. His presumed chance for fame and fortune, however, dissolved during and after the war as the American public was repulsed by the reality of war — the devastation of human life, the dismemberment of young men's bodies, the starvation, the loss of family and connection — all so vividly and gruesomely imprinted in the public's eye.
No longer could war be portrayed as romantic or heroic as Brady's staff shot picture after picture at Antietam, Bull Run and Gettysburg. The zeal for war was replaced with aversion and apathy.
The advance of technology in film and television has brought modern war to the living room, and it was this accessibility which played a seminal role in the American public's turning from war in Vietnam to pressure for ultimate withdrawal of troops. The role of photojournalism to bring truth to a country's people is a sacrosanct responsibility. It is in this light that coverage of the recent invasion of Iraq is an abrogation of journalistic responsibility.
For the most part the conflict was sterilized and portrayed as a war game or "patriotic" athletic event. Networks and papers minimized the reality of bombing on our troops, their troops and their populace. Occasionally, we saw dead Iraqis on the roads to Baghdad, but rarely did we see bodies of our soldiers, Iraqi citizens, women and children. Thus, the Iraqi conflict became a video game portrayed as welcomed liberation where no one but the "bad guys" suffered.
The press has, therefore, betrayed its responsibility to portray the truth. It was so ironic that, at the same time the fascination for the tragic murder of a pregnant woman sold papers, images of bloody carcasses in the Iraqi deserts repulsed the public. Perhaps there has been some tacit suppression by the administration of the truth of war, let alone the truth of the justification for this invasion.
Matthew Brady entered a brave new world with unexpected and psychologically devastating results both for him personally and for the American people, but history owes him a huge debt of gratitude for forcing the world to look in the mirror and be horrified. We have returned to the world of romantic oil paintings, chest-beating and heroic sculptures, and we should be ashamed.
Robert B. Schoene of Seattle is a professor of medicine.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company