Images of war, sanitized for your protection

Technology's limits once kept U.S. dead invisible, and custom kept curtain drawn

For the Record

April 06, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

When television networks and newspapers in United States refuse to use highly charged pictures of dead GIs and the interrogation of prisoners of war, they toe a line often drawn in American journalism.

Photographs of American casualties have often been censored or withheld because of self-censorship by news organizations. Pictures of Americans killed in action were banned outright in World War I and during the first 21 months of World War II. Pictures of WWII POWs were rarely, if ever, shown. At that time, American news media submitted to a voluntary code of wartime practice that was breached just once. Journalists were effectively enlisted in "the good war."

The first published photograph of U.S. soldiers killed in combat during World War II was George Strock's picture of corpses on Buna Beach in New Guinea, which appeared in Life magazine in September 1943. Three corpses half-buried in the sand appear almost graceful in Strock's tender, peaceful, artfully composed photograph.

A sanitized view of the war prevailed until Strock's picture appeared in print, says Michael S. Sweeney, a University of Utah communications professor, in an essay on Ernie Pyle, the archetypal front-line reporter who was killed in action at Okinawa. The Office of War Information and military censors had restricted images that appeared in print or in movie newsreels. Television hardly mattered then; there were only about 8,000 sets in the whole country.

In 1943, Sweeney says, the OWI urged that harsher images be allowed to prepare the country for increasing death and destruction, "and to help motivate the home front."

But more horrific images of dead Americans were still suppressed by both the OWI and the newspapers and magazines themselves. So were quite a few other things.

Photos of women, children and old people killed by American bombs or bullets were barred, says George H. Roeder Jr., an academic expert in wartime censorship. Pictures of victims of GI crimes were not sanctioned, nor were photographs of black American soldiers dancing with white English women.

Battles seen

The technology to reproduce photographs directly in print didn't exist until late in the 19th century. The first picture reproduced by a photomechanical process appeared in the New York Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Civil War pictures made from photographs, which appeared in Harper's and other magazines and newspapers, were engravings made from photo images. Matthew Brady's photograph of Abraham Lincoln delivering his Cooper Union speech as a candidate in New York City appeared on the cover of Harper's as a woodcut.

Brady's pictures of battlefield corpses at Antietam were displayed at his New York gallery in 1862 and, according to a biographical note in the Library of Congress American Memory project, "marked the first time most people witnessed the carnage of war."

Motion picture films first appeared during the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century. Mass media were downright jingoistic in the 1890s and did not report the war so much as promote it. The Edison Manufacturing Co. and its offshoot, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., both sent crews to Cuba. Biograph cameraman Billy Bitzer would later become famous as D.W. Griffith's photographer on The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and a dozen more seminal movies.

Even though more than 50 short films were shot, none showed actual combat in Cuba. Edison staged skirmishes by the Rough Riders in West Orange, N.J. But one Biograph picture in the American Memory series shows wounded soldiers in boats embarking for a hospital ship.

Another film shows graves at Guantanamo, but apparently none of the unburied dead are shown. Edison films purport to show an ambush of Spanish troops by Cubans and the execution of Cuban insurgents by the Spanish. Films shot in the Philippines apparently show fighting in the trenches, and Biograph depicts the African-American 25th Infantry in action.

Vietnam changed all

Vietnam, of course, was the first fully televised war. And with reporters and photographers given free access to the battlefield, pictures of the combat dead became almost routine. Not without cost to the people who took the pictures: Horst Faas and Tim Page dedicate their book Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina to the 135 photographers who died or went missing, 19 Americans among them. Faas spent a dozen years in Vietnam with the Associated Press and won a Pulitzer Prize there in 1965. Page, wounded four times, started taking pictures in Vietnam in 1965 when he was eighteen. Their book won the 1997 Robert Capa Gold Medal. Capa had been photographing war for 30 years when he was killed in Vietnam. His pictures from the Spanish Civil War and D-Day in World War II are especially famous.

In Vietnam, journalists were aggressively skeptical. The daily briefing in Saigon was called the "Five O'Clock Follies." And the distance from World War II restraint can perhaps be measured by Larry Burrows' photograph of grievously wounded soldiers sprawled in a Huey helicopter. It appeared on the cover of Life on April 16. 1965. Burrows, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam photography, died there in 1971.

Pictures of American soldiers wounded in Iraq have begun to appear on television and in print. And no one appears to object to the appearance of dead Iraqi soldiers. Both The New York Times and USA Today published front-page pictures of Iraqi corpses a few days after rejecting the disturbing photos of dead Americans or frightened POWs.

But so far, pictures of Americans killed in action in Iraq have come from Arabic television. Perhaps Americans really only see the dead as flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base.

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