Reaction to news of the death of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard in Afghanistan surely was received nationwide with varying degrees of sympathy and, in some cases, no sympathy at all because it meant nothing to some people who have become completely desensitized to news of death in war. Another Marine lost. Another name published.
But this time there was a twist. An AP photographer photographed a mortally wounded Lance Cpl. Bernard hours before he died. The AP distributed that image, and controversy erupted over exposing the public and Bernard’s family to such horrific content.
You be the editor. Would you have published that picture? Why?
A number of U.S. newspapers opted not to publish the photo, finding it too troubling for their general readership. Some, like the St. Petersburg Times, found a compromise and published the image online. Some, like the Wheeling, W.Va., News-Register printed the picture because, they said in an editorial, “we owe it to our readers to report the full truth about the war, even if that means publishing unpleasant photographs.” I side with Wheeling and the AP. I want truth, not coddling.
In Wheeling’s view, they had compelling reason to publish the photo. That has been the reason behind publication of gruesome battle pictures in the past. Ever studied those Civil War battlefield photos? How about: the photo from Vietnam of an officer executing, at point-blank range, an enemy kneeling on a street; bodies of Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu; burned and brutalized bodies of Americans hanging from a bridge in Iraq.
Sometimes, a jarring dose of reality is the only context that can penetrate Americans’ layers of comfort and secularized pursuits and the Cretan level of political debate that infests the land these days. Sometimes, only a jarring dose of reality can clear hearts and minds. Particularly if we are ever again to have a realistic grasp of what a “hero” label really is and how it's earned.
With all due respect to and prayers for his family, Lance Cpl. Bernard is one of many tens of thousands of American heroes who have died in battle, paying the ultimate price as part of America's armed forces. And, thanks to brave photojournalists (dare we call them heroes?) there are plenty of pictures of our forces fighting --- and their fallen bodies on the Atlantic and Pacific beaches and on the fields of Europe, Vietnam, Asia and elsewhere. Should those photographs be censored because they're troubling? Never made public? Should American children never see such a sight and focus instead on iPods and soccer fields? Ridiculous idea? What do you think?
P.S. There are online guestbooks for Lance Cpl. Bernard. Here’s one.