Cornell Perspectives: Americans Get a Bloodless View of War

October 23, 2012


Recently, a group U.S. Marines in Afghanistan who produced a video of fellow Marines urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters were subjected to "administrative punishments" that "fell short of criminal prosecution," for their actions — but also for producing and publicly sharing video clips of those acts. Something is very wrong with this snapshot of military justice: Media commentators and the public, along with military and political leaders expressed outrage at the videos — yet they remain astonishingly mute about the day-to-day slaughter in this and other wars.

Through photographs censored by the U.S. Department of Defense and many news outlets, far too many Americans beyond the families of war veterans have come to view war as something other than the horror it really is. With each image of war that hides the real effects of bullets and bombs on real human beings, our humanity and maturity as a nation become more sadly underdeveloped. Moreover, the moral compass used to express outrage over visual evidence of the madness of war reveals our "see no evil" preference for bloodless views of military actions we passionately and passively support.

From portraits of historic wartime generals separated from the theater of battle adorning public squares, post office walls, and the official currency of the United States to the contemporary censorship of the Gulf, Iraqi, and Afghan wars, these bloodless views serve the purpose of making war more acceptable by increasing our emotional distance from these conflicts. Such sanitized images of war purposely edit the psychological toll it takes on the men and women we send into battle. Conversely, photographs of the bloated bodies of soldiers on the shores of Normandy during World War II, the image of a naked, napalm-burned girl running down a road during the Vietnam War, the Abu Ghraib prison photographs from Iraq, and the videos of Marines in Afghanistan force us to confront the painful realities of military conflict that most Americans have lacked the courage to face since the Civil War.

On Oct. 20, 1862, the New York Times published an anonymously written story titled "Brady's Photographs: Pictures of the Dead at Antietam." Matthew Brady was the preeminent American portrait photographer of his day who coordinated a photographic documentation of the Civil War under the assumption that the result would be a favorably received historical record of the realities of war that would be presented publicly in his New York and Washington, DC, portrait studios. Antietam was the catastrophic one-day battle of the Civil War that resulted in more than 22,000 dead, wounded, and missing soldiers on both sides of the war. The corpses of men recognizable to each other as friends, family, and real human beings dominated the content of the photographs made by Brady and his associates. However, the reality of photography and the war were too strong a combination for the average viewer. Consider the following observation in the Times article.

"As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type ... Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it."

In 2012, photography has brought dead bodies to the eyes of Americans who have sent sons and daughters to yet another war, and the insanity it breeds in humans. And as in 1862, too many of us are unable to face the brutal visual evidence that war is hell. These two news accounts published 150 years apart, stretching from Antietam to Afghanistan, remind us of the potential of war photography to increase the peace.

In the 21st century, we should realize how truthful views of human beings killing each other in the name of God, gold, or political goals cannot only shatter our false ideas of war, but also realign our national moral compass. It is time for us as a nation to squarely face the blood in the pictures — and on our hands — during times of war declared by our government and supported by us as citizens of the United States.

Bill Gaskins teaches courses in photography, the history of photography, and visual culture.

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