Truth in war's abiding images

April 13, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

This war has given us a surfeit of images. It is impossible to tell now what the abiding image of this adventure in Iraq will be.

Will it be the one of Saddam Hussein's statue being brought down by American military men who momentarily draped the tyrant's face with an American flag, before someone told them it was not a good idea? That picture was evocative of the Berlin Wall coming down - a seminal event in the post-Cold War history of Europe.

Or will it be the image of Iraqis celebrating their deliverance from Saddam Hussein's regime and looting in Baghdad and elsewhere?

Or will it be the image of Americans and Iraqis dying?

Is there an image yet to come of Saddam Hussein drawn and quartered in a square in Tikrit?

The image that will stay with me - and would have stayed with me whether or not I had been for this war - was of an Iraqi man carrying an injured girl in his arms.

We used the image on the cover of this section last week. I spent a lot of time looking at it, for a couple of reasons. One was that it reflected the utter cruelty of war, the senselessness of it, the inhumanity of it.

For here was a girl, unnamed, perhaps 6 years old, for whom life had taken a tragic turn in a terrible instant. It was difficult to tell whether she was alive. She had been injured by coalition bombs at Basra, or so said the caption accompanying the photograph. She could just as easily have been hit by Iraqi fire.

And there was the man carrying her, a frown of incomprehension and hopelessness on his face. Was he trying to get her to someone who could help? Was she already dead?

Whatever the case, life would never be the same for these two people again.

What the picture we published last Sunday did not show was that the young girl's lower leg had been blown away, so there was a bloody stump where her shin would have been attached to a foot. There was no foot.

This was another reason that I spent so much time with this photograph. There was a debate among the editors and writers and photo staff and the designer about whether to show that part of the photograph because it was so graphically horrifying. People look at their newspapers in the morning and we don't want to upset our readers' breakfasts.

Americans who have been watching television coverage of the war in Iraq know there is much discussion of this sort of subject: Whether to show images that will make people sick, or sorrowful, or enraged.

My view in the discussion of the cover photo of the wounded girl was that we should show the whole ghastly image to let people know how inhuman and horrifying war is.

I also believe we should show images of the dead, whether they are Iraqis or coalition troops. Death is what war is about. People who believe that war is good and necessary need to see these images. People on both sides.

When I was foreign editor of this newspaper and the main story much of the time was the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I argued - without great success - that readers should see the worst images of that conflict, so they would know what the Israelis and the Palestinians are living with every day.

Now that is a story whose abiding image has changed dramatically and tragically over the years. It has changed from war and terror photos to the images of what should have been the seminal event of the conflict: the 1993 image of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands on an agreement for peace between their people. And now it is back to war and terror. The images on both sides are horrifying.

Monday, a message awaited me at the office. It was from a reader who had seen the preceding day's section and was furious that we had cropped the photograph's goriest detail.

This reader said she had seen the photo published uncut in a newspaper in Canada. She demanded to know if we were trying to censor the truth by not showing the worst part of the picture, as if we were trying to hide the enormity of the tragedy that had befallen this innocent child.

If the girl lived, she would be a cripple for the rest of her life. Her condition and the hopelessness of the man carrying her are what war is about when you get to it close to the ground.

In that way, we did censor the picture. We do that to be unoffensive. But it does hide the full truth and probably we shouldn't do that.

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