Photos show how much worse war was, over there

October 10, 1993|By Anne Keegan | Anne Keegan,Chicago Tribune

THE CENSORED WAR

George Roeder Jr.

Yale University Press

224 pages. $30

We were on the right side during the war. But we weren't there.

We were here, in the good old United States, shopping on Main Street, living on Elm Street and working on Center Street. We were growing our victory gardens, eating our Spam, saving our tin cans, hooding our headlights, pulling down our shades at night (to make our communities invisible to enemy aircraft) and turning on the radio after dinner to hear the news about the war. But we weren't there. We were here. So we couldn't see.

We didn't peer cautiously out our front windows like most of Europe and the rest of the world and find the war's carnage lying on our doorstep. There were no bloodstains on our streets or burned-out jeeps on our country lanes.

No. We heard reports about it on the radio, watched it on the newsreels and then . . . we saw pictures. In Life magazine, and hundreds of local newspapers. Thousands of pictures, of our sons and brothers and fathers and neighbor boys, all fighting a war we believed was just -- but fighting somewhere else.

What we saw in those pictures of the war was purposely not too discouraging. Not too grisly. Not too upsetting. It was sanitized to keep up the morale back home.

While going through the National Archives in Washington, George Roeder Jr., a professor of liberal arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, found once-censored and now declassified photos from World War II. He turned them into this book.

These are pictures we never saw during the war. Dr. Roeder reviewed thousands of previously unavailable Army and Navy photographs. What he found ranged from appalling pictures of dead bodies broken like twigs, wounded soldiers in pain and disfigured innocent civilians, to photos censored because they showed grinning American MPs taking Italian prostitutes off to be treated for venereal disease, as well as photos showing Japanese Americans being relocated out of their homes and into camps.

One photo, of a graying and forlorn Japanese-American man reporting to a California relocation camp and wearing, as a testimonial to his Americanhood, his World War I uniform, was censored because the government feared it would arouse sympathy among the public toward Japanese Americans.

The reasons for the censorship were complex and perplexing. Dr. Roeder quotes political commentator George Will as once writing in Newsweek: "If there had been television cameras at Gettysburg, there would have been two countries; the carnage would have caused the North to let the South go."

Dr. Roeder disagrees. The honesty of photographs need not necessarily appall or discourage, he says. It also can fill the public with a deep resolve. "To see the truth does not necessarily discourage us; it could make us more committed to end it," he writes. "But it leaves no one with the love of war."

Dr. Roeder found many of these long-censored images among 30,000 photos collected in a branch of the National Archives called Record Group 319. They had been sheltered from view for several decades, until they were declassified in the 1980s. The bulk of them, aerial shots, had been classified during the war for security reasons.

But many others had been classified to protect the public from the brutal realities of combat -- a U.S. soldier with a German stake through his heart -- or to perpetuate old-fashioned social myths. The latter included photos of black GIs mixing with white European women; of GIs with women in nightclubs and thus perhaps enjoying the pleasures of sex while overseas; of innocent women and children injured or killed by U.S. soldiers.

"The willingness to show stacks of dead Asian bodies but not showing stacks of European bodies [until after the war] was one of the things I objected to," Dr. Roeder writes. "It made it appear that life was cheaper on one side of the world than another."

But he did not end the project feeling critical of all censorship duringwartime. He discovered, to his surprise, not one case of an accredited photographer for a news organization breaking the ground rules issued by the Office of War Information.

He also found that when government officials did decide to release a picture of a U.S. soldier gravely injured in September 1943 -- because they feared Americans at home had become too complacent -- it showed a GI with his leg blown off. Only two newspapers in the country chose to run it. The press back home censored itself.

So, too, did Dr. Roeder, when he was doing the book. He found, in the censored file, a dramatic and alarming photo of a young GI having a mental breakdown. "His mouth is open and he is screaming, his hands are out and his features were contorted in anguish. I chose not to put it into the book," Dr. Roeder writes. "He could now be about 66 years old and recognized. I didn't want to do that to him if he were still alive."

Censorship, during a war, is a complex issue, the author says. It has to do with security of the country and morale back home. Then it has to do with questions of taste by the media, and rights to privacy of the men or women photographed -- in agony or in death -- and the feelings of their families.

But each of the censored photos Dr. Roeder discovered captures what was real for a moment during World War II. The photos were scenes we did not witness because the war was there and we were here. These pictures, now printed, show us something we did not see out our front windows . . . or anywhere else, until now. The message is just as strong 50 years later.

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