Sep 5, 2009


The milblogs are buzzing over the last day regarding the decision by the AP to release a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan over the objections of both the DoD and, more importantly, his family. Some have taken the tack that not only should the picture never have been released, it should never have been taken. While I thoroughly agree that it was wrong to disrespect the wishes of the family, you may be surprised to know that I am somewhat more forgiving when it comes to the capturing of that moment for the historical record.

You see, I am a bit of an amateur historian. Maybe it was because my family took me on too many trips to Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields when I was a kid. These trips often included us walking through row upon row of headstones looking for the family name carved on one of them at an age where it was one of the few things I knew how to spell and could call out “I found it.” I found military history interesting then and find it fascinating now.

To my mind, one of the most powerful aspects of military history is the photograph. The single most famous photo ever taken is arguably the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. But to convey the other side of warfare is no less important. Men died on Iwo Jima. To read the history and study the numbers conveys that point, but it is the photo that gives one pause.

Since the invention of the camera, it has been used to capture the aftermath of battle, and in some instances the shutter snaps at the most terrifying second. “Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death” is considered one of Robert Capa’s most famous photos, and has itself been argued as “perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made,” while Capa has been recognized as one of combat’s most skilled photojournalists.

No one questioned Capa’s abilities or humanity when he took that photo during the Spanish Civil war, or others he took on D-Day. But AP photographer Julie Jacobson is being torn to shreds by many right now for taking a picture of a Marine in his last moments. Maybe it’s rightfully so. Maybe she’s a glory hound looking to make a name for herself as big a Capa, or a Rosenthal, or a Galloway or any of the great combat photojournalists throughout history. To rip her (and the AP) over the photo because it was released against the family’s wishes is one thing. But because she took it at all is something else entirely.

What I find most interesting is that it seems to me that many of the people who are so upset by this photo are the same ones who insisted that everyone see the images of Neda after she was shot protesting the Iranian election results – images that are arguably far more disturbing because they are NOT split-second stills, but video in full color with the accompanying sounds of her gasping for breath and the people standing there crying helplessly as she dies. These are both images of patriots who stood up for things they believed were worth defending. Yet one is being viewed as a rallying cry, and the other as something to be hidden away, never to be seen again. When Cpl. Joel A. Chaverri took the below series of photos in Fallujah in 2004 he was not vilified.

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Combination handout pictures released on December 17, 2004, (Upper L frame) showing U.S. Marine Platoon Gunnery Sergeant, Ryan P. Shane, from the 1st. Battalion of the 8th. Marine Regiment as he pulls a fatally wounded comrade to safety while under fire during a military operation in the Iraqi western city of Falluja. (Upper R frame) Shane and another member of the 1/8 pulled their fatally wounded comrade under fire. (Lower L frame) Shane (extreme, L) is hit by insurgent fire and (Lower R frame) lies wounded (L).

Of course, political spin was applied by various people as they viewed these images, but no one attacked the messenger. Was that because the fatally wounded Marine was never named? And does that pay him respect? Or does it make him a nameless, faceless cog in the military-industrial machine? And who decides that? I don’t know… does anyone?

In the end, with all the spin and outrage and argument, what will probably be lost is what’s most important: that LCpl. Joshua M. Bernard gave his life for his buddies and his country and that he was one of America’s finest. Do not think me cavalier if I throw out a quote from Full Metal Jacket, but I believe Gunnery Sergeant Hartman put it best.

Godspeed, Marine.

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Aug. 14, 2009: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard patrols in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Less than an hour later Bernard's squad was ambushed by Taliban fighters waiting in a pomegranate grove. Bernard was hit with a rocket propelled grenade and later died of his wounds. (AP)
The photo in question is here. The family wished it wasn't out, but it is. Decide for yourself whether to click that link.

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