** Now With Update... A Soldier Speaks **
The New York Times is miffed. They aren't happy that there has been a dearth of news photos showing dead American soldiers in the war in Iraq. The Times is lamenting that there have been "4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images," so more carnage and death is their druthers. Well, more American dead, anyway. They aren't interested in the dead of the enemy, to be sure.
Using the story of photog Zoriah Miller who had his embed status removed when he publicized photos of dead U.S. Marines after a suicide bombing, the Times reveals their pique over the fact that not enough dead Americans have been peddled to the American public. The Times denounces the military for protecting the troops and their families saying, "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."
Complaining for opponents of the war that the lack of casualty photos has created a a situation where the "public portrayal of the war is being sanitized," the Times wonders if the homefront is being badly served because we here are not seeing the "human cost of a war that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans."
How the Times can imagine that the anti-war set aren't getting their opinions out to the public is anyone's guess. And how the Times can imagine that the "human cost of war" is being "sanitized" is also a puzzlement. After all, for the last four years and until recently we had been daily treated to the media's recital of the American body count, letting us know just how many Americans had died. Again, the body count of the enemy didn't interest them at all.
Of course, the story of photographer Miller seems compelling... at least to the Times. His photos showed the after math and success of a suicide bombing and this is precisely why the military didn't want his photos shown to the world.
“Specifically, Mr. Miller provided our enemy with an after-action report on the effectiveness of their attack and on the response procedures of U.S. and Iraqi forces,” said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a Marine spokesman.
The story details the story of several photographers that have been disembedded by the military brass after publishing photos of dead U.S. soldiers and reports that many embedded journalists are being kept from areas of battle is revealed.
The New York Times illustrates their story with photos of dead American soldiers from D-Day during WWII as if to say that it was always allowed to show dead soldiers in previous wars, as if these are somehow new restrictions. First of all, that isn't true. But secondly, we are in a different era, a time when a fire fight can happen and mere minutes later photos of the aftermath can be beamed across the world to TV and news outlets. This nearly instant reporting leaves little time for the public to assimilate facts about any battle, much less give family members the opportunity to find out about the fate of their loved ones through proper, more respectful channels.
But, I guess the media have little use for respect.
The military responded to the Times' carping with some solid points.
Military officials stressed that the embed regulations provided only a framework. “There is leeway for commanders to make judgment calls, which is part of what commanders do,” said Col. Steve Boylan, the public affairs officer for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. For many in the military, a legal or philosophical debate over press freedom misses the point. Capt. Esteban T. Vickers of the First Regimental Combat Team, who knew two of the marines killed at Garma, said photos of his dead comrades, displayed on the Internet for all to see, desecrated their memory and their sacrifice.
“Mr. Miller’s complete lack of respect to these marines, their friends, and families is shameful,” Captain Vickers said. “How do we explain to their children or families these disturbing pictures just days after it happened?”
Now, the Times quotes photographer Miller as being "surprised" that his images of dead American solders raised any ruckus. He callously just chalked their deaths up to something that "happens every day," and blew off any criticism. But there is one more aspect of this that explains why the military blanches at allowing the media to exploit the deaths of our soldiers.
Have you seen any stories about Iraq's Sgt. York? How about the Iraq war version of Audie Murphy? In fact, how often do you see any story that reports on the heroism of one of our soldiers in Iraq? The media hasn't wasted much of its precious ink on what they must consider such trivialities. But, they'd certainly love to see the mutilated corpses of our troops splashed across their pages and TV screens!
So, since the news isn't balanced and the soldiers are treated by the media as victims and used solely to promulgate their anti-war and anti-Bush themes, is it any surprise that the military won't let them use graphic photos of our troops' deaths, too?
It sure isn't to me.
** UPDATE **
I have been contacted by Capt Esteban Vickers, one of the officers quoted in the New York Times story, and he asked me to pass along the full text of the letter he sent the Times' reporter on this issue.
Jul 8, 2008, at 12:44 AM, Vickers Capt Esteban T (CF RCT1 S-1 PAO)
The moment I saw these photos, my first thoughts were of the Marines' families. These pictures posted, before they had a chance to bury their loved ones, before they could have a memorial service, before they had an opportunity to grieve. Not only did Mr. Miller violate his embed agreement but what is most disappointing is his complete lack of respect to these Marines, their friends, and families is shameful. With the effortless accessibility of the internet how do we explain to their children or families these disturbing pictures just days after it happened?
In the Marine Corps once you become a Marine, you join an elite brotherhood. As Marines, we take the term "band of brothers" literally. Every Marine past, present and future becomes my brother. For Marines in combat, it is a bond who's strength is difficult to describe but stronger than anyone can imagine. As such, when a Marine is killed in action there is a very deep emotional tie to our fallen comrade. Furthermore, is that bond extends to their family as well. By putting these pictures on his blog, Mr. Miller showed complete disrespect to the families of these men and their fellow Marines
When the Marine Corps embeds a reporter we put a certain trust in that reporter not just in the fact that they will follow the rules and regulations they sign upon embedding, but also to have common decency and a sense of propriety. The Marine Corps prides itself on accepting and embedding any media member whether they write for a blog, national newspaper, or any other media outlet. We put certain trusts and confidences in them, and in turn we give them open access to everything we do. We treat them as one of our own; we are prepared to ensure their safety so they can tell their story. Mr. Miller not only violated his embed agreement but more importantly he violated our trust, taking advantage of a tragic incident solely for his own self interests.
Mr. Miller claims that he posted these images and the accompanying blog to give the world a sense of the reality of war. Nobody understands the horrors of war better than those who fight it. Had Mr. Miller afforded the families of these Marines the courtesy of waiting until a more appropriate time to post his blog, or better yet ask the Marine Corps chain of command about posting the blog things may have turned out differently. However, he failed on both accounts. He failed to have decency or respect for the families or their loved ones and exploited the safety of our service members by supporting the efforts of this attack. He undermined the trust we put in embedded reporters. He truly does not understand or simply does not appreciate the environment we operate in and the internal damage he can inflict. We work very hard building relationships and respecting Iraqi culture. The display of not only our Marines but the Iraqi sheiks only serves to supersede that relationship. The reporter came with the Marines; the local leaders trust our integrity and this one act of posting these photographs can damage our relationship.
Capt Esteban T. Vickers RCT-1 PAO Camp Fallujah, Iraq DSN 3404-513
And I want to take this opportunity to thank Captain Vickers for his service.
(Photo information: Caption= "Army soldiers hand out aid at an Iraqi school in Mullah Fayad. (U.S. Army)," Pulled from the Detroit News, April 11, 2008.)