The sanitizing of the Iraq War was exposed when the Pentagon threatened legal action over the publication of a photograph of 20 flag-draped coffins lying in the hold of a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules.
Its ban on such photos is, ostensibly, to protect the privacy of families whose loved ones are inside the coffins. But an ulterior motive is to sanitize the war by censoring photos that put a human face on it and, therefore, remind us of the human cost.
The Pentagon learned its lesson from the Vietnam War, when every modern method of killing devised by the military was seen routinely by Americans on the nightly news. A few enduring images are of a Vietcong assassin being summarily executed in the street, a naked Vietnamese girl running down a road while her flesh smoldered from napalm burns, Agent Orange being sprayed over huge swathes of jungle, the My Lai atrocity and body bags. These body bags contained dead American boys being loaded onto C-130 Hercules’, and were a poignant symbol of the hated war to Americans. Thus the ban on coffin photos.
The Pentagon, however, is wrong. That flag-draped-coffins’ photo has a patriotic solemnity about it that touches the soul of all Americans regardless of political stripe. Those dead soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Their country should be allowed to mourn them.
It took Matthew Brady, the first photojournalist, to put a human face on war by traveling from Civil War (1861-1865) battlefield to battlefield in his studio on wheels. He gave us the carnage of battlefields, the simple routine of camp life and the wounded and amputees of field hospitals. His black and white photographs were in stark contrast to the vivid colors of the mock-heroic palette, which until then had painted war as a glorious adventure led by dashing gentlemen officers. There was nothing glorious about war after Matthew Brady photographed it.
A human face was put on the Vietnam War when LIFE magazine devoted an entire issue to the American soldiers who died in combat during one particular month by publishing their military portraits, and they were legion. Their names and those of all the dead G.I.’s were later carved in the black marble of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., for evermore.
Even though the Pentagon still blames the media for America’s defeat in Vietnam, it has learned to live with intrusive camera lenses and to cleverly manipulate the media to its own advantage.
In the Balkans conflict, for example, five per cent of the bombs dropped (the so-called “smart “ ones) did 50 per cent of the damage. This means a lot of bombs missed their intended targets but still hit something. Hitting that something certainly caused “collateral damage,” Pentagonese for dead civilians. Of course, the Pentagon only distributed the aerial footage of bombs hitting their targets. And a compliant CNN played and re-played ad nauseam these successful “precision strikes,” the five per cent that gave viewers the impression that all the bombs dropped were smart.
By dangling such juicy bits of footage before the voracious 24-hour news network, CNN’s objectivity became malleable in the Pentagon’s hands. Embedding journalists with the U.S. Army in the Iraq War ? a juicy opportunity the media cannot pass up ?presents another conflict of interests.
The value of photography and film in portraying an idealized military image is not lost on the Pentagon. This is why it spares no expense when filming recruitment advertisements for TV, which are shown during expensive commercial time like the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs and the World Series. And this is also why the Pentagon is very willing to open its vast array of bases and offer its aircraft carriers scot-free to filmmakers who portray the military in a favorable light. What were Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun,” Richard Gere’s “An Officer and A Gentleman” and -- now that women are integral to the U.S. military -- Demi Moore’s “G.I. Jane” if not recruitment films for the U.S. military?
Some of Hollywood’s best directors, including John Ford, Frank Capra and John Houston, were enlisted to do their bit for the war effort during World War II. Houston’s documentary of fierce mountain fighting in Italy, filmed to prepare recruits for what they would face in combat, was, ironically, rejected by the military because it was deemed too accurate and, therefore, bad for morale.
It is instructive that during the Great War (World War I) not one photograph of the horror of trench warfare appeared in The Times, despite the war’s duration (1914-1918) and the millions of dead Tommies (British soldiers) who made the ultimate sacrifice along the Western Front.
What has been missing from the Iraq War is a human face. Although the rising death toll and worsening battlefield situation seem to have caused many in the media to reconsider the patriotic tack they took originally in presenting the war.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw, for example, put a hauntingly human face on the war with a news segment about a young G.I. who had just returned from Iraq, one of his eyes was blown out and the other was blinded. The flap over the flag-draped-coffins’ photo did inspire CNN to focus on the increase in funerals with full military honors -- horse-drawn caissons, 12-gun salutes, folded flags and bagpipers -- the likes of which have not been seen in such numbers since the Vietnam War. And it is curious that President Bush has not personally attended any of them. Then there is the censorship storm over the Nightline decision to put a human face on the Iraq War by honoring all the dead G.I.’s ? as LIFE did in a previous war -- by showing their military portraits as the host Ted Koppel read their names.
An ugly face was put on the war when shockingly graphic torture photos from Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraid prison appeared on 60 Minutes II, a public relations disaster for the military that seriously undermined support for the war among decent Americans. The Pentagon’s effort to manage the media and sanitize the war has come undone.
What roils me about the Pentagon is that it wants American boys to fight the war and the public to support it. But it is very selective about disseminating pertinent information, the very information that an electorate in a democracy has a right to know. The Pentagon, however, expects Americans to continue to rally round the flag in time of war, even though it duped them into supporting the war by the Weapons of Mass Destruction ruse.
Andy Rooney, a 60 Minutes curmudgeon and former World War II combat correspondent, succinctly expressed the sentiment of many Americans when, at the outbreak of the war, he said, “I wish we weren’t in Iraq…but now that we’re there I want us to win.” We did, in fact, win the war. It is the peace, the proverbial hearts and minds that we have lost.
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