Small Wars Journal

A Tough Call, the Right Call

The New York Times ran an article today; 4,000 U.S. Combat Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images; concerning independent photojournalist Zoriah Miller. For those who have not been following this story, Miller was banned from his Marine Corps embed after posting images of Marines killed in a 26 June suicide attack on his blog. The Times reports that Major General John Kelly, Commanding General of Multi-National Force -- West, made the call forbidding Miller from working in Marine Corps-controlled areas of Iraq.

While The Times article is generally sympathetic to Miller's claim that General Kelly's decision was "absolute censorship"

I took pictures of something they didn't like, and they removed me. Deciding what I can and cannot document, I don't see a clearer definition of censorship.

and evokes the now standard-issue Vietnam War comparison,

If the conflict in Vietnam was notable for open access given to journalists - too much, many critics said, as the war played out nightly in bloody newscasts - the Iraq war may mark an opposite extreme: 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.

credit must be given to the authors, Michael Kamber and Tim Arango, for presenting the bottom-line concerning this dust-up (bolded emphasis by SWJ):

It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in the field.

While the Bush administration faced criticism for overt political manipulation in not permitting photos of flag-draped coffins, the issue is more emotional on the battlefield: local military commanders worry about security in publishing images of the American dead as well as an affront to the dignity of fallen comrades. Most newspapers refuse to publish such pictures as a matter of policy.

But opponents of the war, civil liberties advocates and journalists argue that the public portrayal of the war is being sanitized and that Americans who choose to do so have the right to see - in whatever medium - the human cost of a war that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans.

Those who know General Kelly will tell you -- he is the consummate professional - and would not take such action lightly. As a commander in combat, responsible for the lives of thousands of US and Iraqi military personnel and civilians -- as well as protecting the emotional well-being and privacy rights of the families of his Marines, he made a tough call -- the right call.

Times have changed, this ain't Vietnam, in this era of global instantaneous communication it would be foolish to cede the 'war of ideas' to our murderous adversaries by presenting them propaganda fodder, presenting those same murderers with near real-time "battlefield damage assessment" and assume away the notion that family members will never receive notification of a loved-ones death via an Internet image or blog post. This is just plain common sense as well as common decency.

Miller is a very talented photographer and should be admired for his courage to go in harm's way in pursuit of his chosen profession. He should recognize that equally talented and courageous professionals are tasked with a responsibility well beyond that of an independent photojournalist -- they make the day-to-day tough decisions and move on to other pressing matters. Miller and his cheerleaders should do likewise.


Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 08/05/2008 - 1:31am

<I>"... the larger point, which is whether or not photos of dead American soldiers should be published at all, and whether journalists should be banned, or news organizations sanctioned, for doing so."</I>

After making half a dozen comments on this thread, you finally raise "the larger point." Prior to that, you simply lamented the lack of soul searching that was revealed to have preceded the decisions by commanders when they mulled over this issue. I apologize for only responding to what you wrote and not noticing what your larger point was. I should have read your mind.

I do not share your apparent surprise that <I>"average soldiers have a more nuanced understanding of the issues than [I] appear to have."</I> Soldiers are smarter than they often get credit for and I never felt that I was the smartest guy in any outfit, even if I was the Leader or Commander. But I did notice that even among the Soldiers who were smarter than I was, some often got too worked up about some small issue because they lacked perspective. Maybe it was youth or immaturity. Call it "nuanced" if you like, but I call it a lack of perspective or proportion. On this issue, I think that you are lacking perspective.

There two are big issues at stake here that are sacred to most of the military and to most of the American public: the dignity of the deceased and respect for their grieving families. My view is admittedly pretty black and white. Apparently, you think that I am wrong. The odds are in your favor, because very few things in life are black and white. But thus far, all that you have done is fret over the thought that commanders did too little soul searching during their decisions. What on Earth does that have to do with anything?

You finally decided to let us know what the larger point is that got you all worked up, but you have still presented nothing to explain why your grievance has any merit. The mere existence of a grievance does not make it justifiable. The nearest I can tell is that you equate the fuss over these photographs to be an act of shielding our democracy from the consequences of our elected leaders. That would be a puzzling characterization of the situation, especially if it were coming from someone whose first comment on this thread was to point out that something is <I>"categorically different."</I> But maybe I misunderstood your comments or overlooked your point, once again.

I know this a rather toney blog (you try and keep it professional) but...if someone published photos of my former soldiers (I am no longer in, but my young friends are) he'd need Blackwater to protect him from the beating I'd give him.

If they'd even take the job.

Not to mention the media in general (minus some of the embeds) and the NYT in particular have so lost all pretence of crediblity on the subject of the Iraq theater of operations that they can go hang.

I would not BTW put Zoriah Miller in the above category, I think he was (mistakenly) following his conscience, and was probably pretty emotionally worked up as well.

Ken White

Mon, 08/04/2008 - 3:41pm

Somewhere, I lost a paragraph. Hmm, what's that "preview" thingy...

You said:<blockquote>"...all beside the larger point, which is whether or not photos of dead American soldiers should be published at all, and whether journalists should be banned, or news organizations sanctioned, for doing so."</blockquote>Can't speak for Schmedlap but my answer is, to you first question; Yes. To your second; Depends on the situation.

I again suggest that one should consider the Commanders responsibility to the parents or relatives of his troops (who may or may not care about publication of photos; some do, some don't)-- and to those fellow troops in the unit who were not killed but to whom the photographs may (and generally will) be highly offensive in the immediate aftermath of a fight.

Ken White

Mon, 08/04/2008 - 3:32pm

That was my point, Miller blew it, not the NYT. Miller erred and the commander involved took an action -- had the NYT published the pictures first, would he have done the same thing? We'll never know.

As for lily livered, didn't say that. Lazy? Dishonest? Some are the former, some the latter {particularly as you get up in the Publisher milieu), some are both -- just like some soldiers and some clergymen. Nobody's perfect... :)


Mon, 08/04/2008 - 3:18pm

I didn't say that Miller _didn't_ publish images on his blog. I pointed out that the Times published one of his photos of dead American soldiers. Technically, Miller got booted for publishing the photos on the web first, since the Times ran the photo a month later.

But that's all beside the larger point, which is whether or not photos of dead American soldiers should be published at all, and whether journalists should be banned, or news organizations sanctioned, for doing so. It's clear to me now that the three of us -- me, ken, schmedlap -- aren't going to get very far with that. So, in keeping with standards of lily-livered, lazy, dishonest journalist everywhere, I lay down my pen!

Ken White

Mon, 08/04/2008 - 2:52pm

Steven, apparently you missed this from your link:<blockquote>"The Times reported that the freelance photographer who took the picture, Zoriah Miller, <b>was barred from covering the Marines after he posted it and other graphic pictures of dead Americans and Iraqis on his Web site.</b>"</blockquote>

Got to pay attention if you're going to snipe or you'll miss your target...

No, I don't publish a national newspaper, always worked for a living and been reasonably honest so that line of business was never open to me. Nor did I ever imply that I did, I merely said I could understand their decisions -- and I do not necessarily disagree with them. I further stated that I didn't think they or you could understand the feelings of Commanders who lose troops. I don't disagree with those Commanders, either. Balance is not easy in this arena and reasonable people can disagree; I'll guarantee you there is no one right answer.

I read AM occasionally for comic relief; glad to see you have eclectic sources. I don't disagree with what Kip says -- even if he is overly dramatic and way too mellifluous. Most of the kids who get killed are not heroes, they're just doing their job. Regardless, they deserve more respect than they get and they do not need to be objects of partisan and ideological stupidity which is, regrettably, what this issue really is.


Mon, 08/04/2008 - 2:06pm

Kip over at Abu Muqawama -- no wilting leftist journalist daisy -- writes about the issue of publishing photos of dead American soldiers. For those who don't have the time or inclination to click the link below, here's a few sentences on the topic, here's a snippet:

"Kip understands the painful decisions involved. Would he have wished to see the images of his broken and dead friends displayed on the front pages of the news? No. However, we have chosen to serve a greater good, both in life and in death. That a democracy should be shielded from the consequences of the decisions of its elected officials, Kip finds abhorrent. If we as a nation cannot tolerate to see these heroes in death as well as life, then we have no right to ask of them the ultimate sacrifice.


Mon, 08/04/2008 - 1:46pm

I'm pretty sure the Times ran at least one of Miller's photos. I honestly don't recall. However, if you read just the first two sentences of the editorial I linked to, which is considerate and even-handed, you'd see that they did. I'll post them here:

"TWO hundred twenty-one American soldiers and Marines have been killed in Iraq this year, but until eight days ago, The Times had not published a photo of one of their bodies. The picture The Times did publish on July 26, of a room full of death after a suicide bombing in June, with a marine in the foreground, his face covered and his uniform riddled with tiny shrapnel holes, accompanied a front-page article about how few such images there are."

Ken, I didn't know you published a national newspaper! And Schmedlap, it's bracing to see that average soldiers have a more nuanced understanding of the issues than you appear to have.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Mon, 08/04/2008 - 10:59am

Determining which party had a tougher time mulling over the decision seems highly subjective. I would also assert that it is irrelevant to determining who made the right decision.

Ken White

Mon, 08/04/2008 - 2:08am

Depends on your point of view. I can understand the journalists and the NYT decisions.

Can you, Keller, Hoyt or Miller understand any decision of the Commander who lost some men?

Not to mention that Miller's photos were not published by the <i>Times</i> but rather on his web site. But then, you knew that...


Sun, 08/03/2008 - 5:39pm…

Times Op-Ed about the photos in question, as well as others, and the decisions that went into publishing them. I would hazard to say the Times went a lot further in its deliberations about whether, and when, to publish the photos than the military did in 'banning' Miller and other photogs. The "tough call", so to speak, is on the media's side.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Wed, 07/30/2008 - 2:17am

I agree that commanders are probably not needing much time to determine what the right course of action is. The "tough" part of the decision is making the call to follow through on it. What should be a black and white, slam dunk instance of right versus wrong has somehow become a dilemma. Doing the right thing attracts howls of "censorship" or attempts at sanitizing the facts. So commanders will grudgingly do the right thing, anticipating the howls and accusations.

The determination of right vs wrong is pretty easy, but the decision to follow through is tough because commanders know that they will be judged by an audience for whom common sense is no longer common. It's kind of like moving under fire. You know that you need to do it, but you kind of cringe in ancitipation of getting hit.


Wed, 07/30/2008 - 12:28am

I read the blog post, and some others, but it seems that the decisions to boot a photog for taking photos -- or rather, publishing photos -- of wounded or dead American soldiers is almost a reflex on the part of the commanders who have done it. I don't get the sense from the instances I'm aware of that any of these commanders had a dark night of the soul in deciding whether or not to toss a photog out of their unit, and also try to get them tossed out of their job as well (as our fair Gen. Kelly is trying to do by banning Miller from the war zone). That's what I mean by not understanding what the 'tough' part of the decision is. It doesn't seem tough at all, as nothing seems to be weighed in balance.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 07/29/2008 - 1:54pm

<I>"So what's the tough part, exactly?"</I><BR><BR>See the blog post, specifically the excerpt by Kamber and Arango, that begins with, <I>"It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh..."</I>


Tue, 07/29/2008 - 1:16pm

It's unclear to me what part of this photographer getting 'banned' is a 'tough call'. By all accounts, everyone seems to agree without hesitation that it was the 'right call'. I don't see anyone debating the 'toughness' of the decision. So what's the tough part, exactly?

Ken White

Mon, 07/28/2008 - 5:16pm

Totally true...

<blockquote>"Comparing photographs of American soldiers killed in an unpopular war with images of dead motorists on an American freeway is patently ridiculous. They are categorically different.</blockquote>

Driving on American Freeways is extremely popular and the annual death toll is far, far greater than is that of the war in question...

The press freedom and choice simile though is totally valid.

Look. This is easy. Censorship - legally speaking - would be where the government imposed its will by force on a journalist, photojournalist or commentator.

The journalist has the legal right to go back to the region and report until his heart is content. He just can't do it while being protected by Marines.

This is called editing, and it's done every day for various reasons (OPSEC, information for potential damage assessment by the enemy, unnecessary pain and heartache of the loves ones of the deceased, etc.). It's the last one that trumps everything else in this case, it's legal, it's wise, and it's the right call to make.

The emotional hyperventilating (NYT and others) over this should be reserved for a serious infraction of rights. The photojournalist, while having a constitutional right to travel to Iraq and publish whatever he wants (short of sedition), in fact has no right to publish whatever he wants while being protected by the U.S.

If the NYT doesn't like it, let them hire Blackwater, Aegis, DynCorp, or somebody else to protect them while they report. So now, how important is this ... really ... to the NYT?

Schmedlap (not verified)

Mon, 07/28/2008 - 2:26pm

Of course they're different. The question is not whether they are equivalent, but whether the difference justifies trampling upon the dignity of the deceased.


Mon, 07/28/2008 - 12:30pm

Comparing photographs of American soldiers killed in an unpopular war with images of dead motorists on an American freeway is patently ridiculous. They are categorically different.

ceruleanbill (not verified)

Sat, 07/26/2008 - 4:01pm

Eloquently put. I start out agreeing with the photographer, ended agreeing with the general. That doesn't happen too often.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sat, 07/26/2008 - 1:01pm

I wonder how the NY Times would react if I took photos from an accident scene on the interstate and posted the images of dead motorists on a blog. Would they view that as me ensuring that the public gets an unsanitized view of reckless driving on our nation's highways?

I suspect that good taste would kick in and they would oppose such a display, because good taste would not be overridden by blind political partisanship.