The Reality of War, Sort Of
If this is supposed to be the ultimate
video war, how come we're seeing so many still photographs? Even the
cable news channels interspersed their mind numbing feeds of the Baghdad
skyline with slide shows of still images from around the battlefields,
using them like spotlights to pierce the dull glow of the video. In
fact the conflict in Iraq confirms both the strengths and some of the
weaknesses of photojournalism. As in the aftermath of September 11th,
the nation once again turned to it to provide a connection to chaotic
events that the human mind can encompass, images that retain their power
long after the video fades. This is the strength of course, but within
its power lies the hidden weakness, that the nation, or rather the nation's
media, only turns to photojournalism in uncertain times. When people
need visual signposts to guide them
Just how much reality they have been provided during this time is questionable. Certainly the system of embedding photographers with units has provided much greater access than in the first Gulf War, but many of the photographs selected for the pages of our newspapers and magazines have produced a fairly sanitized view of the tragedy that war always is. Bear in mind that I'm writing this before the Battle of Baghdad begins in earnest, and that events may prove me wrong. It wouldn't be the first time. But as of now, even though there have been some ferocious firefights in places such as Nasiriyah many of the pictures chosen for publication have shown the might of military hardware, sunsets in the desert silhouetting marines on the horizon, and depictions of patrols that could have been taken on maneuvers in any one of our home grown deserts. There have been exceptions of course, but these have mainly shown either dead or wounded Iraqis, especially children, and some lightly wounded Americans. The most chilling image for me was actually on video, that of the woman POW and the fear upon her face. Indeed what has been significantly lacking in so many of the photographs that we've seen in the mainstream media to date are the emotions of war, emotions that are often not heroic and honorable, and that include terror and hatred as well as courage and compassion. One example that struck me was a photograph taken inside a British helicopter that was evacuating a wounded man. The evacuee lay calmly, even managing to balance his helmet upon his chest. To his left one of his comrades in arms manned a machine gun through the open helicopter door. It reminded me of the famous Larry Burrows picture from his classic essay "One Day with Yankee Papa 13" but the difference is significant. In the Burrows photograph the wounded lie sprawled in a messy heap on the helicopter floor, and the face of the man working the machine gun, Crew Chief Farley, shows fear, anger, frustration and rage. Both photographs are real, but one seems more real than the other. War is a messy and uncontrollable business at all times, and its participants and events are rarely orderly.
I do not believe that more graphic photographs haven't been taken. Given the intensity of the fighting and the fact that under the stress of being shot at the average photographer, or at least this average photographer, is hard put to make aesthetic and often even ethical decisions, these images must exist. The last thing in your mind when your life is in real and immediate danger is whether or not the readers of the Hometown Times will be offended by what you're shooting. What I think we're seeing here is a selection process that is the result of internal media company censorship rather than the military kind. Rumors are surfacing of directives to picture editors to only choose photographs that make the US military forces look heroic, and to spare the American public the distress of seeing dead or badly wounded personnel. Of course this also spares the advertisers the same suffering as the reader, which is a fortunate coincidence.
Unfortunately the media companies are right. Not only do most advertisers not want images of death and mutilation to spoil the promotion of their products, but also most readers don't seem to want that either. Wounded Iraqi children and the corpses of US soldiers may be your tax dollars at work, but don't put them on the American breakfast table. Whenever they have appeared, even if they show the corpses of the enemy, angry letters to the editor follow in their wake. During the Vietnam War Walter Cronkite, (you remember him, the Most Trusted Man in America) was criticized for showing bodies at breakfast. His response was that not only should the American public see them at breakfast, but at lunch and dinner as well, and once again before they went to bed. While on the surface this may seem arrogant and insensitive it serves the nation well. The fact that the Iraqis didn't roll over and surrender and that the war would continue for at least two weeks came as a shock to many Americans on the first weekend of the conflict. This was a direct result of the fact that for many years we have not seen the reality of war, especially during what is now known as Gulf War 1. The Monday morning quarterbacking that went on after that first weekend of Gulf War 2 was the direct result of the way that the Pentagon over controlled the press coverage then. Gulf War 1 looked so easy, really more like a video game than an armed conflagration. As you sow, so shall you reap, and the harvest of disinformation is unrealistic expectations. Information is the fuel upon which democracy runs, and unless it accurately reflects reality we are at a disadvantage as a society to make honorable and sensible decisions. Furthermore we do a disservice to the young men and women of our armed forces that we send to fight on our behalf if we get a distorted view that minimizes their courage and sacrifice as well as their humanity.
I have always felt that the role of the picture editor is to be the first reader and this job is made much more difficult when working under constraints imposed from the executive suite. Another complicating factor when choosing photographs that represent the turmoil of war is that of aesthetics. The covers of Time and Newsweek that hit the newsstands on March 31st both showed wounded marines during the battle for Nasiriyah. Time's cover depicts a hero warrior, his blood caked face looking resiliently ahead. It is well lit, well composed, and makes a fine cover image. Newsweek on the other hand has a much more poorly composed and lit photograph of a distressed marine being rushed from the battlefield by comrades. That he is seriously wounded is evidenced by the splint on his right leg that he holds above the ground, as well as the pain on his face and the general confusion of the image. From a design school viewpoint Time has the better cover; for an accurate and moving picture of the reality of battle Newsweek wins hands down.
I suppose for the Digital Journalist the good news is that the Internet often gives a more complete and compelling photographic coverage of the war. Even the mainstream media seemed liberated from conservatism on their own web sites, maybe because they consider them less important. For the committed Internet user the opportunity was there to see the war through other eyes and other cultures, and many of the images that were not published in the United States surfaced on foreign sites. This of course is not to say that there was not plenty of distortion and propaganda displayed there, and that some of the images were gratuitous and voyeuristic. But war is distressing and often obscene, and every time we try and put a good face on it we commit a moral crime. When we hide behind the safety of our own propaganda where no lives are lost, no injuries are too disfiguring, the people we liberate flock joyously towards our troops, and the phrases like "collateral damage" and "friendly fire" are fuzzy substitutes for "innocent victims" and "tragic incompetence" then we commit the ultimate obscenity. We convince ourselves, and, even worse, our children that war is OK. If we can produce men and women with the courage to photograph the reality of war, then we as a society should have the courage to look at what they see.
Copyright Peter Howe, 2003
for Baghdad, Part I