“The Strange History of War-Death Imagery”

From an interesting article by Charles Paul Freund on images of war dead:

    The struggle for war-image control began when a camera was first aimed at soldiers in Crimea, but that struggle is hardly founded on the absolutes implied by arguments like the one over the war coffins. The simple version of this and similar debates—that the state must hide its dead or risk growing opposition to its war—is a pointless simplification of a complex phenomenon. Yet both the state, which wants to limit these images’ exposure, and war critics, who want them disseminated, are acting as if the reaction to such images is necessarily Pavlovian.

Freund is correct to write that reactions to war images are not always what one would expect them to be. (For a more in-depth study of this phenomenon, read David Perlmutter’s Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises, which I hope to discuss in greater detail at some point.) I know plenty of yahoos whose response to photos of dead American soldiers would be something akin to, “Let’s go nuke all those ragheads!” As far as I’m concerned, the point in showing uncensored images from the war is not that they will automatically turn everyone against it. I don’t believe they will. I do believe, first, that state censorship is inherently un-American, and, second, that showing such images (of soldiers and civilians) would finally give this war the unchallenged attention it deserves. A photo of a dismembered Iraqi child might not turn a majority of the country against the war, but imagine showing one on the nightly news just once a month and then tell me that we would still be duking it out over gay marriage or Janet Jackson’s bosom. That’s why the U.S. government and its cheerleaders suppress these images–they don’t want anyone, especially the great, apathetic middle of kinda-pros and kinda-antis, to think too hard about what’s happening.