People Can Handle the Truth About War
Some readers resented The Washington Post for publishing an Associated Press photograph of a critically wounded Iraqi child being lifted from the rubble of his home in Baghdad's Sadr City "after a U.S. airstrike."
Two-year-old Ali Hussein later died in a hospital.
As the saying goes, the picture was worth a thousand words because it showed the true horrors of this war.
Neither side is immune from killing Iraqi civilians. But Americans should be aware of their own responsibility for inflicting death and pain on the innocent.
The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, said about 20 readers complained about the photo, while a few readers praised The Post for publishing the stark picture on Page 1.
Some mothers said they were offended that their children might see the picture, though one wonders whether their youngsters watch television and play with violent videos in a pretend world.
From the start of the unprovoked U.S. "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the government tried to bar the news media from photographing flag-draped coffins of American soldiers returning from Iraq. A Freedom of Information lawsuit forced the government to release pictures of returning coffins.
Howell said some readers felt the photo of the Iraqi boy was "an anti-war statement; some thought it was in poor taste." Well, so is war.
Howell said her boss, Executive Editor Len Downie, "is cautious about such photos."
"We have seldom been able to show the human impact of the fighting on Iraqis," Downie was quoted as saying. "We decided this was a rare instance in which we had a powerful image with which to do so."
It's unclear to me why this was deemed to be "rare." After five years of war, there is finally one photo that is supposed to say it all?
Howell said she checked hundreds of U.S. front pages on the Internet but saw the AP photo nowhere else.
That makes me wonder why the media have shied away from telling the story about Iraqi civilian casualties. News people and editors were more courageous during the Vietnam War. What are they afraid of now?
Who can forget the shocking picture of the little Vietnamese girl running down a road, aflame from a napalm attack?
And who can forget the picture of South Vietnamese Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan putting a gun to the temple of a young member of the Viet Cong and executing him on a Saigon street?
I don't remember any American outcry against the media for showing the horror of war when those photographs were published. Were we braver then? Or maybe more conscience stricken?
Of course, the Pentagon did not enjoy such images coming out of Saigon in that era. Most Americans found them appalling, as further evidence of our misbegotten venture in Vietnam. Americans rallied to the streets in protest and eventually persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to give up his dreams of re-election in 1968.
Some Americans believe the media were to blame for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Nonsense.
Johnson knew the war was unwinnable, especially after the 1968 Tet offensive and the request by Army Gen. William Westmoreland for 200,000 more troops, in addition to the 500,000 already in Vietnam.
The Pentagon made a command decision after the Vietnam War to get better control of the dissemination of information in future wars. That led then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to create an office of disinformation at the start of the Iraqi war. It was later disbanded after howls from the media.
More recently, we have seen the Pentagon's propaganda efforts take the form of carefully coaching retired generals about how to spin the Iraq war when they appear on television as alleged military experts. The New York Times' revelations about those pet generals have cast a pall over their reputations.
Too often in this war, the news media seem to have tried to shield the public from the suffering this war has brought to Americans and Iraqis.
It's not the job of the media to protect the nation from the reality of war. Rather, it is up to the media to tell the people the truth. They can handle it.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Copyright 2008 Hearst Newspapers