Photographing War Dead: How the Policy Has Changed Through History

Roundup: Media's Take

David Carr, in the NYT (April 25, 2004):

...The current administration's squeamishness about photographs depicting the consequences of war has plenty of precedents in American history, but it stands in stark contrast to where war photography began.

In 1862, New Yorkers went to the gallery of Matthew Brady and saw, for the first time, the gory externalities of the Civil War. The dead were a persistent presence because of the limitations of the technology of the day. Daguerreotypes required subjects that remained still, and there is no subject more patient than the dead.

But by the beginning of World War I, as the mass reproduction and distribution of images became more commonplace, the political and military leadership began to understand that seeing lifeless American soldiers could have a corrosive effect on the country's will to fight, and photography was banned altogether. It was only two years into World War II when the federal government decided it was time to take the lens cover off the camera - albeit in controlled and thematically patriotic ways.

"Up until that time, Americans had been supporting the war on imagination alone," said Susan Moeller, a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "The photographs helped to make the rhetoric and the goals tangible. The military, in this instance, wanted the American public to be in the same war they were in."

By the time of the Vietnam conflict, all hell was breaking loose, often in front of the eyes of the viewing public. War's inherent savagery, its indifference to human suffering, entered the hearts and minds of Americans like a rocket-propelled grenade through graphic video and still pictures. The dissonance between those images and the rhetoric of the American leadership helped the public decide that what was initially sold as a global quest for freedom had become a trap with incalculable costs.

Sometimes, it is the juxtaposition of images that creates its own narrative. During the first Gulf war, President George H. W. Bush was photographed playing golf at a time when coffins were piling up at Dover. And horror and outrage created by the iconic pictures from the so-called Highway of Death, where Iraqis fleeing in retreat from Kuwait were immolated by American bombs and missiles, may have been one reason Saddam Hussein was not pursued into Baghdad. It was under the first President Bush that formal ceremonies for the returning bodies of soldiers were discontinued at Dover - and with that, cameras were banned as well. The reason given at the time was that the type and timing of ceremonies ought more rightly to be left to each soldier's individual family, but then - as now - those motives were widely questioned. Still, the same policy has now become the general rule at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

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