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July 26, 2008

On Showing Our Military Dead

I've got a reaction to this "controversy" ginned up by the New York Times.

If the conflict in Vietnam was notable for open access given to journalists too much, many critics said, as the war played out nightly in bloody newscasts the Iraq war may mark an opposite extreme: after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.

It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in the field.

While the Bush administration faced criticism for overt political manipulation in not permitting photos of flag-draped coffins, the issue is more emotional on the battlefield: local military commanders worry about security in publishing images of the American dead as well as an affront to the dignity of fallen comrades. Most newspapers refuse to publish such pictures as a matter of policy.

But opponents of the war, civil liberties advocates and journalists argue that the public portrayal of the war is being sanitized and that Americans who choose to do so have the right to see in whatever medium the human cost of a war that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans.


A story is handed down in my wife's family.

Her mother's cousin was among those who landed on D-Day, and survived that initial onslaught. Five months later, in November, he was killed in battle.

A few weeks later, shortly before Christmas, his mother was glancing through a copy of a magazine at the neighborhood newsstand. Suddenly, she fainted dead away. By awful coincidence, she had turned to a picture of her son (or what appeared to be him -- it could obviously never be confirmed), dead on the field of battle in Europe.

She never recovered from the shock, and joined her son with the Lord much too soon.

You can see why I would prefer that we NEVER see pictures of the mangled bodies of our precious military dead.

For that matter, I recall the trauma of seeing wounded servicemen screaming in pain on television newscasts during Vietnam -- and breaking down in tears because I wasn't sure that the injured man was not my own father, who was serving there at the time.

I respect the notion of "the public's right to know" -- but some in the press adhere to a truly warped version of this doctrine. The reality is that there are some things that we really don't have a right to see, as a matter of public decency.

Did the American public have a "right" to see JFK's autopsy pictures by the day of his funeral?

What about those same shots of MLK, during the first week of April, 1968?

And one of the most tragic stories of the assassination of RFK involves one of his sons, watching the assassination of his father over and over again, alone in his hotel room, seeing his wounded father cradled in the arms of others as he lay dying in that hotel kitchen.

For all we had a right to know in each of these cases, is there a moral limit beyond which our public voyeurism should not be permitted to intrude? And does that not include media self-restraint in the case of those killed in war?

So let me be clear -- if the media will not restrain itself, I've got no problem with the US military refusing all cooperation with a given photographer, reporter, or news organization. For while our free press may be free to cover the war how they see fit -- superficially, seditiously, insensitively -- they are NOT entitled to the assistance and cooperation of the US military to do so.

By the way -- there's a "must-read" at NewsBusters on this same article, which includes additional commentary by one of the soldiers quoted in the article.





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