Lesson #166: The Antiseptic War

I am strongly against the sterilization of combat photography that has been the stance of the American Department of Defence since Vietnam. I believe it is detrimental to the general public and to the overall understanding of the progression of the war to the average person. I believe the censorship of images (as what happened with Zoriah Miller a couple years back* and with the Ken Jarecke photograph during Desert Storm**) is a dangerous thing, even if it keeps the general populace placated.

Here’s what I learned: Three times as many bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were dropped during World War II. Granada was HIGHLY censored. So have all seven (!) wars in which the US have found themselves been.

What I already knew: The government is sneaky when it wants to hide things. The media enjoyed sensationalizing the Gulf War.

I don’t believe that combat photography should be easy to see, but I believe I should be given the choice to see it. So when I came across this CBC documentary today, I was fascinated. It’s about the progression of governmental control of combat journalism since Vietnam.

As a side note, I have about a dozen books of combat photography, so don’t think I’m saying this just because it’s something to say. I believe that it is important and, as I wrote a term paper on as a master’s student, that it can be artistic…for example, Larry Burrows made a number of photographs that mimicked etchings and paintings that were done of battlefields during World War I including the photograph of the dazed Marine having his wounds dressed, which mirrors the C.R.W. Nevinson painting, “The Doctor” and works on its own as a photograph whether you know the painting or not because of the colour of it. Blue eyes, red blood…it just works. I think that if you can accurately portray something so violent and bloody as a war and make it haunting and artistic at the same time, that’s a rare gift. The first book I ever picked up on combat photography had an image in it that I will never forget and I credit that image with my interest in combat photography. Because everything is wrong with it and it’s still gorgeous. (It’s actually a frame from Burrows’ famous “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13” photoessay, which appeared in the April 16, 1965 issue of Life Magazine.)

*A larger version of the photograph is here. And graphic, so don’t look at it if you don’t want to see it.

**There’s an interesting BBC article about it here.

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