When the Bodies Don’t Want to Be Shown

The New York Times’s David Carr had a column yesterday — “Show Me the Bodies” — noting the relative rarity of pictures of U.S. soldiers slain in combat in Iraq. He discusses the factors involved, including squeamishness among media organizations and the many layers of difficulty, from danger to simple logistics, that conspire against such pictures being taken in the first place. He also mentions a notable exception to the general rule: A picture from the November 2004 battle in Fallujah, when Stefan Zaklin, a photographer with the European Pressphoto Agency embedded with an Army company during the fighting. Carr recounts that Zaklin “took a gritty, horrific portrait” of the company commander after he had been shot and killed by insurgent fighters — a picture widely printed at the time in Germany and France but not in the United States until long afterward (as part of stories about unpublished graphic war images.

Without going into the merits of publishing such a picture — I agree entirely with Zaklin’s argument (the picture he shot is at that link) that the image was important both for him to shoot and for viewers to see — I think Carr has missed the principal reason there aren’t more pictures like the one from Fallujah: The soldiers themselves won’t stand for it. Zaklin mentions this in his discussion of the picture:

“I stayed behind with the two men tasked with guarding the body.

One of the men was clearly on the verge of snapping; he was muttering to himself, trying to keep himself calm. It was dark, and my shutter speed was below what you would normally be comfortable using to get a sharp frame with a digital SLR. I focused the camera, and put it down from my eye. I leaned against a doorjamb, and fired two horizontal frames.

“I looked at the two soldiers, trying to gauge their reaction. One looked at me and then went back to watching the doorway he was guarding. The other kept muttering. I checked to see if the frame was sharp. It was. I rotated the camera, and shot two vertical frames. The mutterer stopped muttering, and shot me a look that sent chills down my spine. I didn’t know him as well as the other soldier, and decided to wait until the soldiers I knew better returned.

“In the end, I wasn’t ever able to take another picture of the dead captain.

“I waited two days, well after the captain’s family was notified, before I put the picture out for the world to see. I knew his family had been told because two colleagues had already interviewed the dead captain’s father about his son’s death. Despite the delay and a scrupulous reading of the embed rules, the military was furious that I sent the images at all. Nothing really came of it, I was essentially a convenient target for unfocused grief.”

Zaklin actually downplays the on-the-scene reaction to the incident. Toby Harnden, a British reporter for The Telegraph embedded with the same unit Zaklin was covering, reported on Zaklin’s ejection. After noting how well he got along with the Americans, Harnden wrote:

“But relations did sour towards the end, when a photograph of a dead soldier — whom I had been speaking to minutes before he was killed — appeared in a German newspaper.

“It was a haunting image of the body lying in a dusty kitchen, blood seeping from a bullet wound to the head. For me it summed up much of what had happened in Fallujah and was also a memorial to a brave American who died for his country.

“In the pain of the moment, Task Force 2-2 saw it differently.

” ‘Grab your stuff, asshole, and come with me,’ was how a captain addressed Stefan Zaklin, of the European Picture Agency, when news of the picture reached the unit.

“Zaklin was placed under armed guard and told he had violated the rules of propriety. Nothing in the rules had been broken. The soldiers had seen Zaklin snapping away in the kitchen — but it seemed that this was where the military and the media parted company.”

Carr mentions the frankness of the images that came out of Vietnam, when it became commonplace to see at least a slice of the grisly reality of the fighting. It’s widely observed that the military establishment, which allowed the media virtually free access to combat units, has crafted the current regime of rules for “media embeds” to avoid that kind of access and the uncontrolled flow of disturbing images and observations to the folks at home. The brass has succeeded to the point where it now takes a freedom of information request for us to get to see pictures of flag-draped coffins arriving back in the United States.

But there’s something deeper at work. I’m sure there was an us-and-them feeling at work between soldiers and journalists in Vietnam. But I wonder whether it was so deep as it is now. On one hand, the widely felt antipathy among many toward the media, especially in its connection to this war and its fancied failure to present the “real” (meaning “positive”) news about what we’re sacrificing so much blood and money for. On the other hand, the rank-and-file soldier has changed. In Vietnam, the troops a reporter or photographer encountered were nearly certain to be draftees, people who had landed in the military and sent into combat by happenstance; journalists might have been a nuisance to them, but they weren’t radically different by nature or mission. The soldiers we’re sending to Iraq may never have dreamed they’d find themselves fighting insurgents in the desert, but they’ve all chosen the armed forces, and they’re part of an institution that in many ways views itself as separate from civil society. Journalists are outsiders to this group and bound to be particularly unwelcome when they intrude too far on the lives and sensitivities of the troops. Thus the anger and outrage when a picture of a fallen warrior is run.

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3 Replies to “When the Bodies Don’t Want to Be Shown”

  1. I saw the photo when it first came out. It made feel very sad and angry. That guy could be my neighbor.
    But it is not all that different in nature from the work of Robert Capa or Mathew Brady. It shows the truth. At 300 billion dollars we might want to know what we are paying for. The picture informs.
    As for the reaction by the government. I could see the soldiers wanting to protect the dignity of one of their own. But the administration has never said what they are going to do to win the war…other than muckling along and hoping for a miracle. It doesn’t really fit into a rosy game plan to show these type of images.
    Finally, it doesn’t do a lot of good to try and stop these images from coming out. Someone out there is taking pictures right now and they will be seen. I mean the Abu Ghraib story came out, at least in part, because of the photos taken by GIs.

  2. I must argue against a photograph taken of any Soldier in death and displayed publicly. People who think they are somehow wiser, or better informed, about life, or death, by seeing a once vibrant, living person reduced to meat, are mistaken. We are not this crude matter, anyway.
    As a most minor agent of the administration, let me give my opinion on how we are going to win this “war.” We are going to train and equip the Iraqi people to handle the business of government–as much as their culture, education, and philosophy will allow–and then we are going to allow them to handle it according to their cultural norms and the political necessities required. Suffice to say, Iraq will become the country that Iraqis desire it to become, and not otherwise, regardless of any amount of wishing.
    John McFarlin

  3. Hi, John:
    It’s one thing to argue against photographs of dead soldiers (do you extend your ban to enemy dead? How about to the likes of Zarqawi?). It’s another to declare that those who believe there’s value in such pictures are wrong. That’s simply not for you to say since you can’t possibly know what sort of private contemplations or understanding such images may spark.
    As someone who pays a minor part of your salary and ponies up for your grub and equipment and whatever Halliburton is up to over there, let me observe I just wish “the administration” you refer to had been as straightforward as you are in your assessment of what we can “accomplish” in “Iraq.”

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