The cost of war

>> Friday, September 04, 2009

"Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936,"
by Robert Capa. One of the most famous war images of all time,
Capa's photo may have been staged. Nevertheless, it informed people around
the world of the terrible price Spanish patriots and international volunteers were paying to save their country from the horrors of fascism.

I'm not a big fan of the press, to be honest with you. When I was in law school, the paper I wrote for my required writing section dealt specifically with the conflict between the First and Sixth Amendments: it's in the nature of the press to see that a juicy crime drives ratings and sales of papers or magazines, even if publicity (and the tendency of reporters to be legally illiterate, to take shortcuts to meet deadlines, and to focus on the most salacious details--all at the expense of accuracy) corrupts a potential jury pool and deprives an accused of any reasonable chance of receiving a fair and impartial trial. The landmark case of course is the Sam Sheppard case: Sheppard was accused of killing his wife despite his claims that an intruder had done the deed; the case became one that garnered national publicity (it eventually inspired the television show The Fugitive) and Sheppard's actual guilt or innocence became secondary to public perceptions of the case. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court found that Sheppard had never received a fair trial because of media coverage, and it's hard to disagree (tho' I've always harbored my personal suspicions--Sheppard's tale never convinced me, although I agree Sheppard's trial was tainted and feel the SCOTUS had no choice but to reverse the conviction upon appeal).

The reason I'm going into all of that is that it's very hard for me to defend the media: even if they act appropriately, it's usually hard to credit their motives, and most of the time they spare you the trouble by acting pretty reprehensibly. So when my friend Kate Baker castigates the Associated Press for publishing photographs of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard dying over the objection of Cpl. Bernard's father, it's hard to take up the Associated Press' side. Especially since it's the Associated Press we're talking about--I'm not going to link to their coverage any more than Kate is, not just because I feel a certain amount of ambivalence about it, but also because I can't help noting that the AP technically would want me to pay them a licensing fee for doing so even if I'm (a) engaging in what is arguably Fair Use under common law and (b) vaguely defending them (with reservations and caveats). The AP is a pretty awful corporate entity and has lots of reasons to be ashamed of itself even without the arguments over the Bernard photos.

I don't quite disagree with anything Kate says. I feel torn, really, because I pity poor John Bernard, the father of the soldier in question. I cannot imagine losing a child, it has to be a terrible, terrible thing. And I fear that Kate is probably right about the AP's motivations being profiteering, greedy, selfish, arrogant and reprehensible--something I think I'll be coming back to in a moment.

But here's the thing, and the reason I feel torn: the United States is at war in two countries, and it's been like a video game, a movie, some distant quasi-fictional thing for most of us. That's very much the media's fault (along with the U.S. military and the previous and perhaps current presidential administrations), and I think I'll be coming back to that, too, but the point is that as horrible as it might be for Mr. Bernard, the American public should have been forced to look at flag-draped coffins and photographs of dying soldiers for years now. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a pacifist at my core: even if you accept that wars are necessary and even if you accept that these wars are just and required, it is the moral obligation of every citizen in this country to understand the cost of the war in lives and souls. War is a terrible thing, a bloody intimate thing that puts men and women into situations where not only are their lives in routine danger, but they must set aside to some degree every bit of moral education they ever received about the sanctity of life and righteousness of not doing harm unto others. We ask our men in women to do terrible things and to be exposed to terrible things, and we have a number of obligations to them in exchange: one is to take care of them when they're wounded physically or mentally (the VA scandals during the Bush Administration were a reprehensible moral failure on our part, as are ongoing problems in providing soldiers counseling and psychiatric care to those who suffer PTSD or worse); another obligation, the relevant one in this instance, is to share in their horrors as much as it is possible to do so from the safety and comfort of our nice little homes here an ocean away from the lands we've sent them to. And if we can't handle that--the conventional wisdom in some quarters is that such images are bad for morale or sap the will to fight--then we have no right to send them. Our causes are just or they aren't, and if they are we are willing to pay a terrible price or we ought to look in our mirrors and be ashamed that we even thought of sacrificing our sons and daughters for anything less.

To some extent I fear controversy over the Bernard images will be a reflection of moral cowardice on the part of our society for just this reason. As I said a moment ago, we should have been exposed to images like this before now. I would hope repeated exposures wouldn't harden us, that every moment of shock would be just as fresh as the first, though I might be giving human beings too much credit. And I hope that the most vital shock to complacency is not one of fury at the douchebags at Associated Press belatedly deciding to cover one of the wars we're in the midst of: I hope that the prevailing feelings are focused on Cpl. Bernard and his family, and the soldiers and soldiers' families like Cpl. Bernard (let me hasten to add that I think Kate's post reflects that she's very much focused on the Bernards, and her fury at AP is filtered through those sympathies--she's not shocked that AP spoiled her evening, but that their actions are causing grief to the Lance Corporal's family).

But if there is rage at AP, and contempt, they've earned and deserve it because they've fostered such a moral cowardice, and their motives are suspect now. Had the media been giving the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the coverage that wars are due, instead of allowing themselves to be subverted by Pentagon media managers for the sake of easy and convenient access, had members of the mainstream media engaged in the kind of ballsy, neck-risking, coverage that the best reporters of the Vietnam War engaged in--coverage that exposed members of the press not only to enemy fire but to arrest and charges by friendly forces--one wouldn't suspect that the AP's ulterior motives now involved, as Kate writes, "some greedy bastard... licking his/her lips at the amount of hits and controversy these pictures would cause." I think Kate's right. The Fourth Estate has failed so badly in their coverage of the past eight years that there's no good reason to give AP the benefit of the doubt now that they claim these photographs are "news." American soldiers--not to mention civilians and, yes, enemy soldiers and combatants--have been dying for years now, and death is neither pretty nor kind.

I don't think it's wrong that the Associated Press is publishing this photograph, but I think they ought to be ashamed of their reasons for doing so.

And, more important than anything else: my thoughts and hopes to the Bernard family, and my gratitude for your son's sacrifice.


Kate Friday, September 4, 2009 at 9:21:00 PM EDT  


You definitely bring an interesting perspective to the table. Thank you. :)

Yet, I still don't know if I could agree with offering up pictures of identifiable dying soldiers up to their families.

Another friend asked me my thoughts if the father had said, "Yes, publish it."

I guess my heart-strings are pulled by families who lose loved ones. Civilians and volunteer soldiers alike.

As a parent, I would rather remember my child in his/her uniform, or a soccer shirt, or anything but a bleeding mess on the side of the road of some foreign land.

That is what I'm most upset about, really. I can deal with horrid images. It's the lack of human attachment and the current media's whoring of such images that really pisses me off.

In our quest to associate the human toll with wars, I would argue we lose the human connection associated with the act of taking and publishing said pictures. These pictures become objects, causes, and propaganda.

Hence the reason I kept the Marine's name until the end of my post. In all the hullabaloo (did I just use that word?), we've lost sight of who he was.

There are ways to show the horrors of war without stepping all over the graves of those who've died or sacrificed themselves for their cause.

Broken cities. Yep. Refugees. Sure. Flag draped coffins. Yes. Wounded soldiers? Sure.

Soldiers who have died and last horrific moments that are captured on film... no. Mothers holding thier dead children in their arms, grieving they've lost their world. No. The charred and decapitated bodies of civilians hung from a bridge? Nope.

Death and grieving have always been a very private thing for me and anyone who profits from it, should be ashamed.

Eric Friday, September 4, 2009 at 10:26:00 PM EDT  

Kate, I understand--indeed, the points you make are why I think publication is generally the right thing. A bombed building is an abstraction. A man or a woman, though, is a parent, a child, a sibling, a neighbor, a co-worker, someone who was loved and liked and surely (for that matter) disliked, a human being who had a name and a life and a family, and the price for whatever we are trying to accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan (or any other conflict) is that some people will lose all of those things.

The profit side is another element, though. The images should be a part of our consciousness and conscience, not a spectacle. Ideally none of those things would be attached at all; pragmatically, if that's impossible, I wish/hope AP is making some kind of representative donation to the family of Cpl. Bernard or to a worthy and appropriate cause.

Interestingly enough, I consciously included Cpl. Bernard's name early and repeatedly for exactly the same reason you held it until the end: an attempt to respect that a man had a name and a life, and paid the ultimate price for his country.

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