There is a row going on in the United States about the publication of a photograph of a dying marine in Afghanistan. An Associated Press photographer took the photo after being caught up in the ambush. Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard died from his horrendous injuries soon after the photo had been taken, but before it had been published. I picked it up in the Observer.
The response from the US Government was as understandably outraged as it was predictable. US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said:
I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organisation would purposefully defy the family’s wishes, knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish, is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling.
Understandable though this sentiment is, it begs a number of questions. For example, why is it wrong to show this photo of one man dying when Gates didn’t object to the televisual spectacle of the bombing of Baghdad or good propaganda pictures of dead Taleban in Afghanistan? Why is it wrong to upset the family of an American casualty, but not a problem to show dead relatives of other upset parents who happen to be Middle Eastern or Asian?
This is not a trivial issue and yet I guess it is one of the most difficult moral decisions faced by media organisations daily. War is obscene and death in war is usually unpleasant to look at. We might be inured to violence and death on the screen, but we clearly have to be protected from the reality. When war is remote we easily ignore the suffering or we simply don’t register the anguish and miserable despair it causes to victims – whoever they are.
I remember hearing a sobbing US pilot describing how he had no problem dropping napalm on Cambodian children because he was so high up and so far away by the time the bombs hit the ground that he had no connection to it. After the end of the Vietnam War he saw film of what he had been doing and had a serious breakdown.
And these thoughts have been sparked by my reading of a remarkable diary of Liverpool in the War Years (1939-45). This was handed to me recently and I read it this evening. It belonged to Miss A I Robinson and I have no idea when she typed it up and put it together. It was given to me by someone who thought I might be interested – and I am. I remember growing up in Liverpool where there were still bomb sites in the 1970s and ’80s. My parents and grandparents lived through the bombings and incendiary holocausts launched by Nazi aircraft in the early 1940s and we were told stories when we were children there. This diary should be in a public records office in Liverpool as it gives a first-hand account of every month’s experiences from the beginning to end of the War.
It also includes photos of the destruction. It doesn’t show photos of dying or dead people, but written descriptions are added. It doesn’t shy away from describing the realities of violence and war. Yet I read it at a time and in a culture that is glib about violence. And I read it at a time when churches obsess about sex and say little about the pornography of violence that pervades our lives. We even read the accounts of violence in the Bible without flinching – as if it weren’t real or didn’t hurt someone.
The question is: should the public who fund military action be protected from seeing the consequences of their action? Should war be sanitised in order not to upset us at home? Or should we be exposed to the real world and what it looks like when a young soldier gets blown up? Should we allow a government to be outraged at the ‘insensitivity’ of publication when we know that the real problem is government’s fear that seeing the reality of the violence might turn the heads of those who tacitly support the war? It was the body-bag count from Vietnam that turned American support and it might well be the procession of coffins through Wootton Bassett that eventually affects British toleration of the continuing war in Afghanistan.
I feel considerable sympathy for the family of Joshua Bernard and considerable contempt for those who unemotionally or unempathetically see the photo only as a ball in a poltical game. But we – and his bereaved parents – can’t avoid the bigger-picture conclusion that (as the Observer article put it) “Joshua Bernard has now come to symbolise something more: the suffering inflicted on America’s sons and daughters in uniform, and the unease of fellow citizens forced to confront the grim truth about their deaths.”
I think we have been welcomed to the real world.