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Iraq: What We're Not Seeing

More than 2,600 American soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003. Chances are, you haven't seen many photos like this one.

By David Carr


When it comes to war photography, Vietnam remains the bloody yardstick. During the Tet Offensive in 1968 (weeks of intense battle which turned many Americans against the war), Time magazine ran a story with photos showing dozens of dead American soldiers stacked like wood. Images like these, depicting the human cost of war, filled American newspapers and evening newscasts, bringing the war into living rooms across the country.

Today's war in Iraq is different. While pictures of Iraqi dead are ubiquitous on TV and in print, there are very few images of dead American soldiers. (We see pictures of the grievously wounded, but those are depictions of hope and sacrifice in equal measure.)

A survey last year found that in a six-month period in which 559 Americans and Western allies died, almost no pictures were published of the American dead in the mainstream print media.

Is there a taboo, political or otherwise, on the publication of photos of men and women who paid the ultimate price in Iraq?

There is a real public appetite for raw images of the war in Iraq. The War Tapes, a documentary filmed by National Guardsmen from New Hampshire in the deadly Sunni Triangle, has received awards and enthusiastic reviews. And Baghdad ER, HBO's gory look inside battlefield medicine, has been seen by 3.5 million viewers and was the network's most-watched news documentary in two years.

Sanitizing, Or Practicalities?

Yet, in part because the Bush administration has restricted access to returning coffins from Iraq, critics claim that a sanitized visual narrative is being constructed for an increasingly unpopular war. (The Pentagon says its ban on photos showing military caskets has been in place since 1991, to protect the privacy and sensitivities of grieving families.)

But some journalists say that it is practical, not political, realities that dictate what we see in the media.

First, there's the issue of security: As the war drags on, staying safe has become a huge challenge for many journalists, leading fewer to cover the war. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 78 journalists have been killed in Iraq as of mid-September—more than were killed in either World War II or Vietnam.

"It is getting horrendously bad,'' says Chris Hondros, a veteran war photographer who has been to Iraq seven times. "You can't work the way you want because of the security concerns.''

Another practical limitation is that Iraq is a vast place where conflict erupts of its own accord and photographers are embedded with specific military units. Vietnam, in contrast, was a much smaller country, where correspondents and photographers were free to roam to wherever they could hitch a ride.

"Unless it happens right in front of you, you can't make a picture of it,'' says Hondros.

Other than waiting 72 hours for families to be notified, he says, there are no restrictions on putting images of American dead on the news wires.

Picking Photos

Whether the photos get used or not is another matter. A 2004 study of 200 American and international journalists covering the Iraq war found that 17 percent of them worked for organizations that would not publish pictures of the dead, and 42 percent had rules discouraging the practice. (The New York Times has no such rule, but the paper says it rarely sees such images.)

Media companies also face a variety of commercial considerations: Advertising agencies don't want their ads running next to photos of dead bodies. Then there are issues of taste: Concern about a squeamish public can lead to grisly photos being left on the darkroom floor.

In addition, a generational factor may be at work: The people running the military today came of age during Vietnam, when the war at home was lost on the strength of public revulsion. They will not make the same mistake.

"No war was ever covered like the Vietnam War," says Hal Buell, the former head of the Associated Press photo agency, "and no war ever will be covered like it again."