Last week, I wrote a column about the coordinated effort by the Pentagon and administrations of both political parties to hide the human cost of war from the American people. As I wrote, part of that effort is about selling war as a harmless video game, and part of it is making sure the increasingly war-averse public doesn't get to actually see what war really is. Little did I know the column would end up - quite tragically - being validated so quickly.
Over the last few days, the country has learned that Robert Gates, the Bush and now Obama Defense Secretary, tried to stop the Associated Press from distributing a single photo of a typical - and typically bloody - battle scene in Afghanistan. Gates, as is typical of Pentagon officials, couched his intimidation effort in the argot of compassion:
In a letter to Associated Press President and CEO Thomas Curley, Gates said he was asking the AP to reconsider its decision to distribute the photo "in the strongest of terms" and called the decision "appalling" and lacking in "common decency."
Gates continued, "I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard's death has caused his family...Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of [the family's] maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right -- but judgment and common decency."
It is true that the family of the victim, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, did not want the photo to be distributed. And there is no doubt that this casualty, like all the rest, is a terrible tragedy. However, there is also no doubt that the more the Pentagon succeeds in making sure the public doesn't see what "terrible tragedy" actually means, the more the Pentagon succeeds in desensitizing the public to the real costs of war. And what an unfortunate success it has been. Indeed, the fact that Gates says even he - the head of the Pentagon - "cannot imagine" the pain and suffering that casualties cause victims families suggests just how divorced every segment of civilian society has become from the human cost of war.
Sure, the Pentagon may try to justify censorship by citing its supposed concern for victims and their families. But its real motive is protecting its own prerogatives by making sure the public remains relatively desensitized to what its doing. In fact, if Pentagon officials like Robert Gates really cared about the victims and their families, perhaps he would be spending less time trying to create a censorship regime, and more time figuring out a way to get the soldiers he purports to care so much about out of such poorly planned, never-ending deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The good news is that the Associated Press went forward with publishing the photos its embedded photographer captured, and some newspapers stood firm:
AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski said in the article, "We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
"He said Bernard's death shows 'his sacrifice for his country. Our story and photos report on him and his last hours respectfully and in accordance with military regulations surrounding journalists embedded with U.S. forces.'"...
The Honolulu Star Bulletin, a newspaper in Hawaii where Bernard's unit was based, did publish the photo as part of the AP's package in both its printed and online versions.
Another newspaper that chose to run the photo, The Intelligencer from Wheeling, W.Va., explained in an editorial that it had decided to run the photo after "hours of debate and, yes, searching of our own hearts."
The editorial explained the photo's publication was not intended as "sensationalism" or with any disrespect to Bernard or his family, but that, "Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense. We believe it is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us."
That last point is exactly right, and deserves repeating: "It is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us."
Of course, another newspaper said it refused to publish the photo because it "was in poor taste." But what's really in poor taste is the Pentagon's efforts - and some newspapers complicity - in trying to divorce the public from even seeing the consequences of a war being waged with its money and its human lives.
Again, I'm sure the victim's family did not like these photos being published. Yet, let's not be deceived by a Bush appointee who tries to claim the tragedy here is the photos - and not the death itself nor the Pentagon policy that is one of the major factors in this death.
If we are really a democracy - if we are really a country that lets the public have a say in the decisions of its government - then the public must be able to see the real effects of those decisions, even - no, especially - when those effects are so gruesome and tragic.