The picture was perfect. It provided a moving portrait, an image that journalists called "iconic." It was true to the moment. Yet the photograph was deceiving in a way that media images often are -- showing us what's more apparent than real.
One day, during the second week of November 2004, millions of Americans saw the photo. Blake Miller's face was grimy, but his eyes were clearly visible. He seemed resolute, unflappable. Wisps of smoke appeared to be rising from the long cigarette that dangled from his lips.
At the time, Marines were fighting their way into Fallujah, and American news outlets went gaga for the picture. At age 20, Miller suddenly became a famous archetype.
The day after the photo was snapped, "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather told viewers: "The picture. Did you see it? The best war photograph of recent years is in many newspapers today, front page in some. Taken by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times, it is this close-up of a U.S. Marine on the front lines of Fallujah. He is tired, dirty and bloodied, dragging on that cigarette, eyes narrowed and alert. Not with the thousand-yard stare of a dazed infantryman so familiar to all who have seen combat firsthand, up close. No. This is a warrior with his eyes on the far horizon, scanning for danger."
And the news anchor urged Americans to take the photo to heart: "See it, study it, absorb it, think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride."
Five days later, when CBS brought members of Blake Miller's family onto "The Early Show," a younger brother named Todd said: "He's just a normal person. Just mellowed out. He doesn't see nothing big about this."
News stories were dubbing Lance Cpl. Miller a wartime "Marlboro Man," the epitome of a rugged American soldier doing his grim duty. But his mother, from a small town in Kentucky, had this to say on the CBS show: "I'm proud and he may be an icon, but to me, he's my baby. He's my son. And I just want him home."
Media outlets were eager for the icon, but not for too much reality. Overall, little of war's terrible fear and suffering and death was apt to come through news coverage.
Around the time of the November 2004 assault on Fallujah, I interviewed a 21-year-old former U.S. Army specialist named Robert Acosta. He'd lost his right hand after a grenade landed next to him in Baghdad. "A lot of people don't really see how the war can mess people up until they know someone with firsthand experience," he said. "I think people coming back wounded -- or even just mentally injured after seeing what no human being should have to see -- is going to open a lot of eyes."
But journalists tend to be enthusiastic about providing icons. And it's unusual when we catch a media glimpse of what happens in human terms.
On the third day of 2006, when the man in the iconic photo returned to the CBS airwaves on "The Early Show," this time the mood was more somber. "Blake Miller made it home from the war," co-host Harry Smith reported. "But like many of his comrades, he wasn't able to completely put it behind him. While on duty during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, Blake suffered from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and was granted an honorable discharge from the Marines."
Blake Miller described what had happened on board a ship when he heard a sailor imitate the noise from an incoming rocket-propelled grenade: "A guy was making a whistling sound. And at that time, I mean, it just -- the sound actually sounded like an RPG." Miller added: "And without even knowing what I'd done until after it was over, I snatched him up, I slammed him against the bulkhead, the wall, and took him to the floor. And I was on top of him."
The real person Blake Miller, not the media icon, said: "I'm continuing my therapy. I continued up until the day I got out, actually." And, speaking of other Americans who had fought in Iraq, he said: "The more and more I talked to them, the more I found out that there was a lot of Marines that were going through same, similar emotions. And I mean, it's -- it's tough to deal with. I mean, being in Iraq is something that no one wants to talk about."
As an American soldier in an "iconic" photo, Blake Miller was newsworthy for a little while. But in sharp contrast to the media enthusiasm that greeted him back in November 2004, there was no major media coverage in the days after "The Early Show" revealed on Jan. 3 that he's suffering from posttraumatic stress. For the warfare state, he has outlived his usefulness.