07 September 2009

In Honor of Joshua Bernard

In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 14, Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard
is tended to by fellow U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket
propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the
village of Dahaneh in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck
where he later died of his wounds.
Photograph © Julie Jacobson/Associated Press.

In The Guardian today you can find this report on the controversy swirling around this photograph. In their report from a few days ago, The New York Times - true to form - declined to run the photograph. (You can read more on the matter here.)

When men and women join the armed forces, they give up all sorts of rights and prerogatives. They agree to fight and kill and to risk their lives in the name of their country. And they go through training intended to suppress individualism and make them part of the "team." In the end, though, they are public figures. Their families too, lose control - just as the families of other public figures do (think of the aftermath of scandal inducing activities by politicians). Conversely, the public who blithely supports war (and other policies) just so long as they need not, even indirectly, face the consequences has an obligation to confront reality. And, the press, of course has rights to free expression.

I know what it is like to lose a son. And my heart goes out to the family of Joshua Bernard. However, for the reasons I've just laid out, neither his family nor members of the administration like Secretary Gates have any claim on AP and its decision to distribute the image. It does a disservice to the men and women in the U.S. armed forces to sanitize war, to hide the risks and dangers and sacrifices they endure. Indeed, by making this a controversy about the distribution of images rather than focusing on those risks and dangers and sacrifices, Gates is disrespecting Joshua Bernard. And, of course, it hardly needs pointing out that Gates has reasons of his own to invoke concern for Bernard's family as a way of rationalizing quite different interests of state. (The direct parallel to Don Rumsfeld complaining not about the torture at Abu Ghraib but about the fact that somehow images of it were taken and circulating, seems clear to me.)

This photograph depicts sacrifice and pain and loss. It says nothing about whether all that is 'worth it.' That question will persist and elicit disparate answers regardless of whether this image (and other like it) is published or not. So long as we are allowed only to see images that whitewash the war (like this one), we are disabled from forming a reflective assessment (that is from thinking) one way or another.
P.S.: Here in Rochester, where our daily Gannett newspaper refuses to report on our war casualties, the only regular source of information is the 'alternative' weekly City Newspaper. For the week in which Joshua Bernard was killed here is the report: names, ranks, hometown and date of death. Numbers in a column. Sure that is one way to represent the "cost of war" and I applaud the City folks for persevering in publishing this week after week. But few stop to look and ponder at these numbers. At least I'll bet fewer do than will stop and think as they see Joshua Bernard dying.

P.S.: (12 September 2009) ~ I recommend this AP slide show that provides some context for the above image.

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Blogger Joshua Clifton said...

As an active duty serviceman, I agree with your view that military members are public figures and therefore give up many rights, including the right to privacy in matters of war. However, I do take issue with the assertion that we "go through training intended to suppress individualism..." While many aspects of military training appear to remove individuality (uniforms, rank, customs and courtesies) the purpose of such training is to ensure uniform discipline throughout the services. One of the major advantages that the United States military possesses over other countries' is that we are encouraged to think and act as individuals within the group structure. As an enlisted person, I am provided more responsibility than most officers in other nations. The training provided to wield such responsibility creates an extremely flexible and diverse force, minimizing loss of life on all fronts. Compare the tactics and command and control structures of the US military to those of Germany, the USSR, or Japan in the Second World War and you can see the advantages inherent in this philosophy.

12 September, 2009 00:47  

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