Sometimes truth is also propaganda. When that happens, should we be watching it on CNN?
That's the issue surrounding a video -- broadcast on CNN -- which shows insurgent snipers in Iraq targeting US military personnel. The tape, which the network obtained through contact with an insurgent leader, was aired on "Anderson Cooper 360." Throughout the broadcast, the label "insurgent video" is clear, so viewers know the source of the images.
Disturbing they are. The tape shows 10 separate sniper attacks. The randomness of assault is especially horrifying. The dead are not necessarily engaged in "battle." The first victim is casually moving around in a public area with Iraqis. The network went to black at the moment of actual impact.
This video, shot by the enemy, does advance the enemy agenda. So, it is indeed propaganda, as some viewers complained. And to the extent the video and any fallout from the controversy draws viewers to Cooper's show, it is propaganda for CNN, too.
But CNN was right to broadcast this material, even if insurgents supplied it.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a strong critic of President Bush's Iraq war policy, believes Americans should see more truth, not less: "Snipers are a reality. People being blown up is a reality." Yet, in this war, Kerry argues, "People see almost nothing at all. We see only the aftermath of explosions and bombs. As painful as the images of war are, it's important to understand what soldiers go through."
Does footage such as the CNN sniper video help the enemy? "I don't think you help the enemy to have the truth known," says Kerry. "This is a dirty war. . . and it's escalating day by day by day."
Kerry blames the Bush administration for "a calculated effort to hide the reality of war." He also notes that media cutbacks in Iraq coverage also mean Americans receive fewer close-ups of war's brutality.
The debate over how much Americans should see firsthand of US war casualties has been heated ever since the invasion of Iraq. The media are not allowed to photograph coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, a source of much controversy. The Bush administration calls this a matter of respect, but it is also a way to sanitize a war that has taken the lives of nearly 2,800 Americans and, by one study, more than half a million Iraqis.
President Bush does not attend military funerals because, according to aides, a presidential entourage would cause disruption. But in a recent Washington Post article, the White House took pains to detail Bush's efforts to offer comfort to those who have lost relatives in Iraq. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals, and meets with relatives of the dead.
Without a draft, it is easy for the rest of the country to tune out casualties . This is America, where distraction is easy to come by. Much of what is seen on television makes war feel as bloodless as a video game.
Sometimes, a newspaper photograph or piece of television footage is so striking it cannot be ignored. When that happens, I find myself staring at the skeletal remains of cars and trucks that were ripped apart by bombs deliberately set in the vicinity of markets, police stations, and other public buildings. I try to comprehend the damage done to human beings who happened to be in that doomed spot. I think of the men, women, and children who were standing in line one moment -- and were obliterated the next, by people who live in the same country but do not see each other as fellow countrymen.
Any parent of a teenage son knows the stomach lurch that comes when military recruiting material arrives in the mail. Regularly now, I read news stories about soldiers from my area who died in Iraq. I often study the faces in the photos and especially the eyes, imagining the life they envisioned. I contemplate the mothers, fathers, wives, and children left behind. But, the frequency and prominence of newspaper stories about war casualties are also subject to debate. Some see them as antiwar propaganda. Others see them as pro-administration bias.
The truth is often controversial. It often hurts, but that is no reason to hide it.
CNN was right to broadcast the truth of these sniper attacks. It's well past time to rip off the blinders, so we are forced to see reality, even when it is filmed by insurgents.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.