The Censored War and You

When I was a small girl, my favorite book in my grandfather’s study was the 1973 edition of The Best of LIFE, and looking back now, I’d say it scarred me—for life.

Most people have seen the horrifying images of the pre-pubescent Vietnamese girl running, naked and hysterical, away from her napalm Armageddon. Ubiquitous, too, is the “suspected Viet Cong terrorist” with a gun to his head, seconds before his execution in the streets of Saigon. There is the baby sprawled face down on the pile of dead My Lai victims in the ditch—a massacre that might have been hidden forever if this and other photos were never published. Then I would see the inconsolable Vietnamese woman, leaning over what we’re told are the remains of her husband tied up tight in a garbage bag. How could he fit in there, I remember thinking, as I turned to these gruesome images, over and over with a tortured curiosity and a growing knot in the pit of my stomach that’s never really gone away.

But it did not stop there. Images of American men crusted with mud and blood and a vacant look in their eyes. Soldiers looking wildly desperate or stoic from shock as they pull, drag and carry their brothers over the ruthless landscape, or offer the last moments of tenderness to those apparently too forgone to ever leave. One of the most haunting images taken by combat photographer Larry Burrows in 1966 was of a bandaged black soldier stumbling with outstretched arms to his wounded white comrade, who is dirt-caked and stretched out on the ground, as if crucified, his eyes resigned. Photographer Henri Huet, who died with Burrows when their helicopter went down in 1971, captured a medic, bandage over both eyes, administering blindly among the carnage around him.

The chaos is unsettling, like the whole world blew up and they were stuck in the pit of hell.

These images are now iconic—the cynical among us may even say cliche—but their formative impact was powerful and devastating and frankly, they still are. Except now they are doubly sad—where the images once made us promise to “never forget,” we look at the 40 years of ruinous U.S. military intervention since, particularly in the last decade, and know that is exactly what we did.

Even worse, we compare the media images fully packaged for us by the mainstream news in Afghanistan and Iraq and instinctively know we aren’t getting the whole truth about what is going on there. The military wants to believe that Vietnam could have been won if it had more support from the people back home, and it blames the truthful images and stories, captured fearlessly by combat reporters who were allowed free access to infantry units in the darkest places of the war, for creating a “lack of will.” The rules were changed forever thereafter, with the press restrictions so elaborate and tight now they have rendered the media in many cases nothing more than a useful appendage to the war operation, i.e, “the embedded journalist.”

“Among the many ‘never again’ lessons of Vietnam was a decision by the military to never again allow journalists to have free rein in covering a war,” wrote radio journalist Steve Proffitt in 2010. “By the time of the Iraq War, the 24-hour news cycle was well-established, as was the military’s approach to managing the news.”

In fact, it wasn’t until February 2009 that the Pentagon even allowed media to photograph the coffins carrying slain U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force base—and only at each family’s discretion. Seeing some 84 percent of military families had opposed the change in policy, it’s not surprising that we see very few of these photographs today.

Most of the mainstream photojournalism in newspapers, television and major online media has been self-censored and packaged according to the rules (who today can afford to lose access?) and in effect, works to the military’s advantage. While the images of remote bombings, snipers poised, soldiers kicking in doors—even the aftermath of IED blasts or insurgent attacks—offer enough excitement to maintain interest, they’re never graphic enough to inspire a truly visceral response, much less distress or malaise among the population. If anything, they become part of the wallpaper—“normal,” like everything else. Raw and uncensored images like these (warning, extremely graphic), remain part of the vital underground, yet are largely ignored because of their threat to the carefully orchestrated status quo.

So when pictures of tortured Abu Ghraib prisoners, the WikiLeaked “Collateral Murder” video, and, more recently, the “Kill Team” photographs break through the surface of the Middle American consciousness, the veneer begins to crack (if only a bit). Suddenly, we have adult access to the reality of war after extended periods of being treated like babies, spoon fed and coddled in hopes we don’t cry and make a mess of things.

In March, both the German magazine, Der Spiegel and Rolling Stone published leaked personal photos taken by the “Kill Team,” the members of which are several American Army infantry soldiers from the 3rd platoon of the 5th Stryker Brigade now under various charges of indictment for the premeditated murder of Afghan civilians—including an unarmed 15-year-old boy and a peaceful village cleric—posing with dead bodies, collecting body parts as trophies and planting weapons on their victims to pass them off as enemy combatants. Reports suggest there are thousands of not-yet published Kill Team photos and that there are more soldiers beyond the platoon who might be under scrutiny for similar war crimes.

Predictably, the photos sparked outrage, but not all from the same quarters. The anger from some in the military community helped to steer the story for the doe-like mainstream into the more comfortable terrain of killing the messenger (in this case Rolling Stone). Were they being malicious and irresponsible? Had they packaged the photos and content in a way as to turn people against the war?

The messenger becomes the story, then, with popular soldier-turned-war-correspondent Michael Yon calling the 8,470-word article “bullshit” and inviting his testosterone-fueled readership to boycott the magazine’s sponsors. Then blogger Joshua Foust complained that writer Mark Boal “paints the killings as the inevitable consequence of low morale and a rejection of counterinsurgency, and worse—it implies that murder is, in some way, a fact of being a soldier.” No, the writer does not do that, actually. The entire story is based on soldiers’ first hand accounts within the chronological context of the criminal investigation. There is very little, if any, analysis in the piece at all.

More curiously, Foust calls Rolling Stone’s use of 18 photos and video “war porn,” implicitly suggesting that rather than journalism, the magazine is engaging in the worst kind of agenda-driven exploitation. Whether it’s to sell magazines or to protest the war, he doesn’t say, but Foust plants enough of a seed to make even the reader feel dirty for looking at the story, and appreciating it.

Sorry, when witnesses say that soldiers were passing around the Kill Team’s “trophy” photos, and a digital menagerie of corpses and body parts found in the course of their patrols, that’s war porn. That is sick, and that is why there is an Army investigation into the perverted, desensitized culture that led not only to the killing of that 15-year-old boy, but to one of our soldiers standing over his thin, dead naked body and smiling for pictures while he yanked the boy’s head off the ground for the pose.

It seems as though Foust and Yon would rather these photos weren’t published at all—and in that way, their reactions merely reflect the military’s pre- and post-Vietnam view that publishing them degrades morale and emboldens the enemy. The military had been in the business of censoring images during World War I and World War II, as well, and in that way, public sentiment was thoroughly managed—and very successfully, too.

Foust imagines the zeal with which (obviously liberal, antiwar) media “publish photos of ‘dead brown people’ to drive page views and newsstand sales,” and suggests these organizations fall down when giving dead Americans their due. But in the next breath he acknowledges that it is the military’s own doing—through strict rules against photographing the wounded and dead and through an aggressively enforced mentality that any “negative” coverage might upset its control of the message (this is artfully done in the guise of “protecting” and “respecting” the families of the soldiers. Who on a news desk today has the brass to argue with that?)

For goodness sake, when The New York Times attempted to humanize the urban conflict in Iraq in 2007 by highlighting, with photos, a soldier who is shot in the head while engaging in a door-to-door search, the full force of the military establishment and pro-war blogosphere came down on them, repeating the military’s rules and talking points like programmed automatons.

What happens—and I think Foust understands this –is the American audience becomes desensitized to war because it has no concept, unless they have been there themselves, of how relentlessly brutal it is. The drip-drip of leaked photos of dead civilians cannot compare with the kind of mainstream access Americans had to the war in Vietnam, demanding an emotional response either way. You can counter that Vietnam was a draft war and that today, 99 percent of America isn’t invested enough in the war to care, and in part that’s true. But who is to say we would have re-elected George W. Bush in 2004 and allowed this war not only to last on two fronts for nearly a decade, but sit passively by while another one in Libya is opened up, if we were to really know how disproportionately ruinous the war has been—for our young soldiers, as well as civilians—to anything positive we’ve accomplished in Iraq or Afghanistan so far?

At the moment I am reading Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter David Philipps, who tracks the tragic demise of several of members of an infantry platoon who survived two tours in Iraq only to pursue a downward spiral of substance abuse, crime—even murder— when they came home to Fort Carson in Colorado. The violent crime rate in Colorado Springs rose so high after their brigade returned from a second tour in 2007, that the Army was forced to formally investigate what was going on. So Philipps goes to the source—to the men and their time in Iraq—to find out what happened himself.

The book describes in detail things most Americans today would or could not conceptualize unless they had been there: seeing shrapnel rip to shreds an entire squad during an IED attack, giving mouth-to-mouth to a unit’s beloved father figure, only to have the sergeant die moments later, watching a lieutenant, wounded by a sniper and waiting for assistance, run over accidentally by his own man in the ensuing chaos. One soldier describes how he leaned onto a building in the aftermath of a checkpoint attack and unwittingly smeared his hand with “lung or liver or something.” There were daily IED attacks, house-to-house combat in the cities, raids and still a lot of down time in between where the anger and confusion among these 18 to 20-year-olds festered like a poison. War crimes that were never reported or acknowledged by the chain of command are recalled by the veterans today with the least trace of emotion.

All of this was kept from us. Even when we could have sympathized, the military saw the unvarnished truth as only weakening the war effort. Maybe it could of—personally I think it should of, because to read these accounts to is to underscore the inanity of the occupations, and to only reaffirm that for the second time in 50 years our men and women are being used as cannon fodder for a politically-driven war of choice. A picture says a thousand words and that is why the military has become relentless at shutting them all up.

Ironically, the military momentarily relaxed its tight censorship when it allowed LIFE to publish a photo showing three American soldiers lying face down dead on a beach at Papua New Guinea in World War II. Ironically, according to Proffitt, Washington had felt Americans had become too “complacent in the face of the ongoing sacrifice by troops,” and thought the photo would reinvigorate their determination. So showing dead soldiers is appropriate when it is in the military’s best interest.

Today it seems like no better time to remind ourselves to “never forget” the mistakes in Vietnam, and if it requires cutting through the message managing and taking photographs from our soldiers’ iPhones seriously, maybe enough to demand real answers about why we are fighting and for how long we are going to send our men and women over there to do it, then so be it. In a world where we’re so used to being hand-held by authority and the corporate media culture, let’s hope that is still possible.

“I would hope those photos and that story would wake people up, although who knows,” writes Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, referring to “Kill Team,” “it may be that American soldiers murdering 15-year-olds doesn’t rate as a story anymore. You wonder whether the ‘Running Girl’ photo would have had the same effect on the current TV-sedated population.”

Maybe not, but I’m on the side of those who say, bring it on, and let us for once, see.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.