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Insightful story in the NYTimes on the effectiveness of the U.S. military’s censorship of images of dead and dying US military personnel. The story leads with the case of Zoriah Miller, a photographer expelled from his embed with the Marines for publishing images of dead soldiers. See his site for this recounting of the event, and see his images here. Zoriah’s case encapsulates the U.S. military’s attitude toward control of images. The Times says:

And while publishing photos of American dead is not barred under the “embed” rules in which journalists travel with military units, the Miller case underscores what is apparently one reality of the Iraq war: that doing so, even under the rules, can result in expulsion from covering the war with the military.

But what really stands out for me is the data. Specifically, these two statements, from the same article:

after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.

By a recent count, only half a dozen Western photographers were covering a war in which 150,000 American troops are engaged.

Given the ubiquity of the camera and video player in Iraq today, not only in the hands of professional journalists recording the conflict for over five years, but also in the hands of soldiers, Iraqi citizens, and insurgents, it’s downright startling that so few images of American dead have surfaced in public. If it were only a matter of the US military censors in action, it would be simply unbelievable. Of course, there are other dynamics in play, such as self-censorship, or editorial discretion, of news publications. It’s also likely the case the numbers in the NYTimes article aren’t completely accurate, or apply only to mainstream US news sources. A casual google search turns up a story of Iraq TV showing 5 dead U.S. soldiers in just one story. There is also rumor, difficult to substantiate, of online trade of death images from the war. A google search turns up a number of sites claim to trade images of both U.S. and Iraqi war dead. While it’s hard to tell whether this  it is eerily reminiscent of photos and films that I saw in Chechnya in 1996, and certainly possible to imagine this kind of trade existing.

This academic article and an LA Times story treat the subject from a more mainstream point of view.

We’ve come along way from the original US documentary treatment of war dead: Matthew Brady’s and Alexander Gardner’s treatment of Civil War battlefields, as presented by the Library of Congress. Ubiquity of images, but a degree of U.S. military selection, and self-selection by mass media, that keeps them out of the hands of the public.

digital file from original neg. of left half

Photo:Gettysburg, PA, dead confederate soldiers in the “devil’s den”, Alexander Gardner, 1863.

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