The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Truth or Travesty? A Fallen Marine’s Last Moments

September 7, 2009

The Associated Press has sparked a controversy by publishing these graphic photos of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard’s death in Afghanistan, against the wishes of his parents and the Pentagon.

Forgetting the fact that we never seem too concerned about representations of dismembered or dying people from other countries, let’s review the two key issues in the debate:

1) Should the DoD be bullying the press into sitting on war photos that render war as ugly as it is? In reviewing the coverage on blogs, most comments I’ve seen by military personnel argue no.* But they also think it’s bunk to assume that a) the public doesn’t ‘get it’ and b) that the war is ‘senseless’ and c) that the public will turn against the war if they see ‘what it’s really like.’ On all three points, I agree (that it’s bunk).

2) Should the press respect the preferences of those it represents and their families even if it means suppressing the full truth? This is by far the more important issue in my mind, for Bernard’s family (not just the Pentagon) twice asked the AP not to publish photos of his death. I tend to come down on victims’ rights in these cases, and ironically, so do progressives most of the time. A lot of the same liberals who are supporting the AP in this case, because they believe in the political agenda behind its decision, would have criticized war journalists in Bosnia for publishing photographs of rape victims against their request, no matter how useful this would have been in bringing attention to the horrors of war. If I were in the reporter’s shoes in either case, I’d have respected such a request.

On the other hand, if the US government wished to lend support to the family’s cause, it could not have chosen a worse spokesperson than the Secretary of Defense. Now this family’s genuine wish for privacy has been associated in the public’s mind with the DoD’s agenda to maintain war’s legitimacy – and has undermined both.


*Those who identify themselves as having served are saying things like the following in comments on the Denver Post article that broke these photos:

“I am a 3rd generation combat arms soldier. I have several good friends buried at Arlington. I feel for this young amn’s family and honor his sacrifice and his memory. But I have no qualms about publishing photographs of my death or my friends death as death is part of war and we must be able to comprehend that every death is a horrible thing and a great sacrifice to a family and friends back home. Recall the shot of the rotting corpse of a soldier in a shell hole that is one of the “classic” images of WWI…the photo showing the washed up bodies of dead Marines on a beach in the Pacific, etc etc…yes, the images are graphic, but unfortunately they are also necessary. A photo can mobilize a nation to fight when necessary, or it can serve to start the dialogue needed to end an unjust one. Free society requires a free press. You don’t have to like it, just honor it. That is what we are/were fighting for after all people…freedom.”

“I’m glad the photos were published. As a Marine, I’m far from disgusted by them. I am appalled that such “hoopla” is being raised over it. This is war, it’s not pretty or fun. It’s not all parades and fireworks.”

“I am a Corpsman (the medics that take care of the Marines) currently deployed to Iraq. People dont fully untderstand what is going on over here and in Afghanistan. We see it everyday. If you guys want to send us to war and not come along for the fun, well you better not complain when you have to look at how ugly it really is.”

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.