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A tough call on photo of dying Marine

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates went to extraordinary lengths last week to try to persuade a major news organization not to make public a photo of a 21-year-old Marine rifleman dying in Afghanistan, saying that to do so over the express objections of the family was “unconscionable” and “appalling.”

The secretary’s appeal, made in a phone call and letter to Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, was rejected. The AP stood by its decision to distribute the picture to its clients and also made the photo available to all on its Web site.

It was a tough call, but the right one.

A number of news organizations did use the dark, somewhat fuzzy picture, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher, but a number of others, including this newspaper, did not.

Those that chose to run it should not be faulted, nor should those that chose not to. This was a daunting editorial decision that each news outlet had to make for itself, based on its own standards and sense of its audience.

As hard as it may be to view that picture, especially for the Marine’s family, it belongs in the public domain as a legitimate piece of visual history in a conflict that as of this writing has taken 562 American lives in combat, with no end in sight.

It honors his death, and those of all others, by showing what it means to give one’s life for one’s country. It is also a testament to courage and comradeship. Two fellow Marines can be seen risking their own lives to tend to their fallen buddy under fire.

Suppressing or withholding the photo would have ill served the open society that the Marine, Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, gave his life to serve so well so far from home.

Secretary Gates’ arguments should have been part of every responsible editor’s deliberation, but it was never Gates’ decision to make nor, and I say this with great disquietude, the Bernard family’s. A free press is messy, even painful as here, but as Jefferson counseled, it is essential to our form of government.

The American military and visual journalists have a long and sometimes stormy relationship dating to the Civil War, when Mathew Brady and his associates used a camera — “the eye of history,” he called it — to document war and warriors, including the fallen. Viewers far removed from the fields of battle were shocked by the graphic carnage, and editorialists worried that relatives would recognize loved ones among the photographed corpses.

By World War I, governments had come to respect and even fear the power of visual imagery, and photos of that conflict were censored along with news accounts.

The proscription on images of American war dead lasted until 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was finally convinced that showing the ultimate sacrifice that combat troops were making overseas would stiffen, not weaken, spines on the World War II Home Front.

Many people blame unfettered press coverage for the loss of Vietnam, especially the nightly TV footage of dead and wounded GIs being lugged to helicopters in jungle clearings.

That sentiment led to renewed efforts at strict news management, if not outright censorship, during the 1983 Grenada invasion, which I could cover only stateside, the 1989 Panama invasion and the 1991 Gulf War, which I covered (or rather tried to) from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

A decade after the Gulf War, Walter Cronkite, who had been a front-line correspondent in World War II and later reported from Vietnam, observed in The Christian Science Monitor that “as a result of the censorship in the Persian Gulf, we have lost our history” — especially the military, who had been deprived of “independent news people out taking pictures or writing ... with the troops in action.”

By the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the Pentagon realized it had little hope of controlling the press, for no other reason than it had lost control of the means of transmission. Journalists who can talk and upload text and images directly to their newsrooms are not easily tamed.

Thus the concept of embedding journalists with units to share the rigors and dangers of war was reborn. Empathy would be asked to replace censorship.

Much has been written critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “victim or villain” stereotype of Americans who wear or wore the uniform endures in some quarters. But it is heartening that news coverage has for the most part evolved back to where at the individual level, military service is generally appreciated and portrayed for what it is.

AP photographer Julie Jacobson did nothing unkind or untoward by photographing Bernard’s final moments from a short distance off and passing that image on to her editors. One need only read the compelling, sensitive account she co-wrote to appreciate the depth of what she both witnessed and experienced.

If the camera is the eye of history, shutting it to a moment as stark and full of meaning as what transpired on that Afghan roadside Aug. 14 would constitute a warping of history. Bernard was a Marine at war. Jacobson was a war correspondent chronicling his patrol and all that entailed, including his being struck down by enemy fire. Everyone was doing their duty.

The photo is disturbing but not prurient. She did not alter or intrude herself on events by taking it. There is no issue of publication before notification of kin. Bernard was buried more than a week before the AP distributed the photo with the proviso to editors not to make it public until the next day, to give them time to weigh using it.

The AP took the additional step of advising the family of its intention to run the picture. That relatives asked after viewing it that it be withheld is powerful and persuasive, but not dispositive.

Families have — and should have — the power to forbid coverage of the return of their fallen loved ones to Dover Air Force Base. Those are demonstrably private moments, and I detest the exploitation of war dead by people who would use images of flag-draped caskets to assail the very causes that the people in those caskets died for.

But war is a public undertaking and death on a battlefield is a public event, especially when journalists have been invited along to chronicle the waging of war.

I say this not only as a journalist but also as a former soldier who long ago held a young comrade on a battlefield as the life slipped out of him, and as one who later stood before that man’s relatives recounting his last moments and watching their anguished eyes peer back into the last ones their loved one ever saw.

Americans today wear the uniform voluntarily and proudly, and rightly so, but we also need pictures like Jacobson’s to remind us of Robert E. Lee’s admonition, that it is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an e-mail to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0945 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Mark Prendergast’s Right to Know blog. It can be found here.

RELATED: Read about how Stars and Stripes' editorial staff dealt with the photo here.


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