Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It Needs Saying

In Afghanistan, on August 14th, Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard (21) was mortally wounded by a Taliban RPG while conducting a foot patrol in the Helmand Province. His last few minutes, as he struggled to stay alive and fellow Marines labored to stabilize him, were photographed and filmed by an Associated Press photographer. Against the emotional pleas of his parents and the personal requests of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the AP ran the photos anyway. People have been positioning themselves on both sides of the battle lines ever since. As a photographer, an embedded journalist, and a veteran, I strongly oppose the AP’s decision.

As Colonel Jack Jacobs wrote in his article, “The Associated Press Loses Its Way,” the public is well aware of war’s cost in human lives, thus dismantling the AP argument that “it conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.” Just ask the more than 4,500 families that have lost loved ones in the War on Terror, or the more than 750,000 families that have sacrificed a loved one to US conflict in the 20th century alone. A picture doesn’t make it any more real for them; it plunges the knife deeper in to unhealed wounds. What would the loved ones of the Virginia Tech massacre said had forensic footage been published? I doubt anything positive.

If a photograph is essential to providing accurate details of a conflict, then are we to assume that all wars prior to photography were poorly understood by the public? I daresay not, since in all wars fewer came home than left – and families were permanently deprived a loved one. They knew first hand, as did all their friends, the “grimness of war.”

If photos and film accurately portrayed violence and gore, they wouldn’t be a staple of movies and graphic novels. Quite simply, they would be too traumatizing. Ask anybody who’s endured a serious car accident. Ask if they think photos compare at all to the real thing. Gore on television and in print is accepted because it does nothing to put the viewer in the actual scene. It satisfies a grotesque curiosity – and makes millions of dollars. I would propose that the AP, like any other company in the entertainment industry, was trying to drum up publicity and a profit. I am extremely disappointed they were successful.

War is not profit; it is hell. A photograph fails to convey the loss of a friend, or the reek of blood mixing with soil in a country that the US will never own, but simply hand back to its rightful owners. It shows no pain. It doesn’t portray the ebbing of life. It doesn’t accurately show grief.

As a veteran, I can’t imagine allowing a reporter to hover around a fallen comrade and take photos. It isn’t a hot story; it’s a man dying. I would have snatched the camera from his/her hands and thrown it towards the enemy. “Go get it now, you bastard. Or get his blood on your hands. What you’re doing deserves it. Profiteering off a death…” I would be disgusted that they are there at all. There’s a special room in hell reserved for these people. Would they take photos in an emergency room too?

As an embedded reporter, I find such a response to be extremely disrespectful, to say the least, and a very poor use of my time. If they’re losing people, they need help. Perhaps I could hold a bandage, or carry ammo, or just lay low and stay out of the way. As a writer, I find their medium odious. They have successfully captured images that will now burn in the minds of Joshua Bernard’s family indefinitely – photographs that the whole world saw, thought “how awful,” and went back to playing on their computers or reading the stock market report.

Very bluntly, the observer wasn’t there. It’s a photo of somebody they’ll never meet, in a country they’ll probably never visit, and they will never experience the fear, the chaos, and the heart wrenching pain of watching a brother lose his life before their eyes. To them, it’s marginally inappropriate horror – the stuff of films; not real life.

Here’s what I would have done: set aside the camera. I cannot photograph a dying brother. But, I would write story down in graphic detail. I would describe the routine patrol. I will describe the personalities of the troops, their demeanor as they stepped off on their patrol. I would describe the weather, the smell, the buildings and the lay of the land. I would write about how the Marines interacted and how they chatted with the Afghan soldiers as they readied their gear for the mission. I would write about the camaraderie. I would also write about Joshua Bernard. In the end, the story is about him.

As the piece progresses, I would write about what happens, and describe the absolute revulsion I experience as a fellow American and veteran falls to enemy fire. I would write about my amazement as his comrades do everything in their power to save his life while remaining calm, returning fire, and functioning in a state of total chaos and tragedy. I would reach for a rifle, media restrictions be damned. I would help.

If the public really wants to know what a war is like, they should fight in one. But even that is not an ideal solution. Every last man and woman in the military as volunteered for service so the public need NOT experience war. They serve so that others are sheltered from it – because war is horrible, and men will die. They know this more than any other. Nearly every combat Soldier or Marine out here has lost a friend along the way.

Should the Associated Press write about war? Yes. Should they write about what happens in Afghanistan? Yes. Should they tell Joshua Bernard’s story? Absolutely. And they should do so with passion, with emotion, and heart – if their reporters HAVE hearts. Lance Corporal Bernard was not a journalistic fact, a statistic, or an attention-gaining photograph to send around the world. He was a son, a man barely out of his teens, and a servant to his country. No photograph will accurately show that. Words won’t either, but they’ll come closer. His life is a story worth telling. His death should remain a tragedy etched into the hearts of his loved ones and comrades, not fodder for a newspaper.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. I can feel the passion in this one. Well written and from the guts.

    For more than a century and half, photographers have documented war and its atrocities. Mathew Brady gets credit for starting all this during the American Civil War. His images of the fallen still causes stomach constrictions. Most of the photographs before Vietnam were of the still type photos which were published after the conflict was past. During Vietnam the dead and dying were moved into the living room during dinner on the evening news. I fear that we will never again regain that innocence.

    It is far more difficult to put toothpaste back in the tube than to squeeze it out.