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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A War Unseen 

What’s the value of a picture? If it’s a picture of war, the value is staggering. The main reason the Vietnam conflict became a millstone around the neck of successive American administrations probably wasn’t that it was so pointlessly misbegotten. It was more likely our most unpopular war because it was easy to see how misbegotten and brutal the war was. Every night.

Sydney Schanberg writes in the Village Voice this week about the way this administration has succeeded in keeping the reality of the conflict in Iraq out of our homes. Yes, the embedded reporters showed the rapid progress of the military into Baghdad and the fall of Saddam’s government (and statue). But the pictures of the now routine daily carnage of the occupation have largely stayed off the front pages of our newspapers and the screens of our televisions.

There’s been pressure to keep reporters inside the military’s perspective of the war and away from the faces of the dead. Even for the pictures that are out there, opportunities to see the true ravages of the war are slim in the American press overall. Early on in 2003, the alarm over whether a picture might be aired in advance of a military casualty notification served to begin a process that kept the focus on the legitimacy of showing the consequences of the conflict, rather than on why the public has been shielded from it.

In a column that includes some of David Leeson's Pulitzer Prize winning (but not widely seen) photographs from Iraq, Schanberg asks:

“If we believe that the present war in Iraq is just and necessary, why do we shrink from looking at the damage it wreaks? Why does the government that ordered the war and hails it as an instrument of good then ask us to respect those who died in the cause by not describing and depicting how they died? And why, in response, have newspapers gone along with Washington and grown timid about showing photos of the killing and maiming? What kind of honor does this bestow on those who are sent to fight in the nation's name?”

It's a question we all ought to be asking.

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