14 Sep

On AP’s “Death of a Marine”

War is a public endeavor of the gravest importance; it is never a private matter, the comments of the Secretary of Defense notwithstanding.

By Brian Palmer, Huffington Post


The basic facts beneath the controversy are clear:

On August 14, 2009, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joshua “Bernie” Bernard was fatally wounded in an ambush in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. In the failing evening light, an Associated Press photographer embedded with his unit, Second Battalion/Third Marine Regiment (2/3), shot a photograph of a prone and bleeding Bernard flanked by two comrades. The injured lance corporal was medevaced, but he died from his wounds at a field hospital. He was 21 years old.

Earlier that day, the photographer, Julie Jacobson, shot images of Bernard on patrol. Days later, she covered his memorial service at a Marine base. Jacobson transmitted these photos, including the image of the bloodied Bernard, to AP.

“For the second time in my life,” she says in the online slide show’s narration as the disputed photo appears on screen, “I watched a Marine lose his.”

AP sent a reporter to interview the Bernard family and discuss the photograph. The young man’s father beseeched the AP’s representative not to run the photo. AP chose to do so, along with other photos, in a story titled “Death of a Marine: A Photographer’s Journal” to clients who receive its “hosted” service. Such stories are fed automatically to newspapers, AP clients, nationwide.

Conservative and rightwing commentators — and some active and retired military — slammed AP for going against the Bernard family’s wishes and running the photo. So too did the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

“I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family,” Gates wrote in a letter to AP’s president.

“Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right — but judgment and common decency.”

AP issued a written statement defending its decision.

“We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is,” Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, stated.

AP asserts that the photographer — and the editors and executives who made the decision to run the photo — followed rules for embedded media laid down by the Pentagon. AP cites the relevant clause in the agreement to make its case:

Casualties may be covered by embedded media as long as the service member’s identity and unit identification is protected from disclosure until [the Assistant Deputy of Defense for Public Affairs] has officially released the name. Photography from a respectful distance or from angles at which a casualty cannot be identified is permissible; however, no recording of ramp ceremonies or remains transfers is permitted.

Writers on sites like “Captain’s Journal”, a conservative blog devoted to military affairs, hammered AP. [Full disclosure: contributors to the site have been critical of my Iraq reporting.]

The site’s “captain,” Herschel Smith, whose son is a Marine and “who is not a member of the armed forces,” says AP violated the embedding agreement. He implies that Bernard’s facial features are distinct enough in the photo to identify him. This would be a straight-up violation of the embedding agreement, which Jacobson would have been required to sign before linking up with 2/3.

“The AP signed a contract in order to obtain the protection of the Marines,” Smith wrote on September 6. “They violated the terms of that contract, and thus they are liars — at least, the people who made the decision to release this photo….They blew their moral capital on a whim. They threw away their soul.”

Judge for yourself whether the photo includes enough of Lance Corporal Bernard’s face to establish his identity.

(As of September 8, “the version of the slide show that will appear on [hosted] sites will be a version of the slide show that will not include the image,” AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, told me on the phone. Editors may request a “secondary version” of the show with the disputed image. Several publications, AP clients, have pulled the image from their sites.)

* * *I have told this story before, but I need to tell it again here.

Mortars started falling on Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah, Iraq, at around 1:00 PM on July 23, 2004. It was my first full day in country as an embed with First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment. Marines shoved me into the mouth of an underground bomb shelter; those inside made room for me. I could here men outside yelling, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”

When the explosions stopped, I followed Master Sergeant Allen Benjamin of Weapons Company, with whom I lived, to the Battalion Aid Station. Inside, there was barely controlled chaos. A giant of a Marine silently daubed at a river of blood dripping from his bald head. Another Marine lay on the floor in a pool of blood surrounded by Army medics and Navy corpsmen.

I raised my camera to shoot.

“What the fuck is he doing in here?” a Marine to my right exploded. I explained to him that I hadn’t taken a photo, that I was an embed and had permission to be there. Master Sergeant Benjamin came to my defense, quieting the Marine.

I stood still, not shooting, just observing. The battalion’s commanding officer entered the BAS and ordered all nonmedical personnel out. I debated staying for a moment, and then left without shooting a photo of the Marine, Lance Corporal Vincent Sullivan, 23 years old. He had a severe chest wound from shrapnel and later died.

I retreated for several reasons, some calculated — I didn’t want to alienate the men on my first day of a weeks-long embed — and others less so. I was intimidated, to be sure, but I was also overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation.

There was no censorship. I could have stayed, but I self-censored, which is akin to lying. At the very least, it is unwitting collusion with those who could keep the American public ignorant of the wars going in their — our — name.

That’s my view.

The day after the 2004 mortar attack, the Marine who chewed me out in the aid station, Ricky Funderburk, then 21 years old, apologized to me. “I had friends that passed away last year, but not that close. Until Vince,” Funderburk explained. He was defending Sullivan’s dignity when he yelled at me, he told me.

I called Funderburk and asked him what he thought of the Bernard photo controversy. We talked, and he responded via email:

I think the press should respect the families wishes and not publish the pictures. I understand that people have a right to know, but there are some things that just don’t need to be published.If someone wants to know that bad what it’s like, they have two options: one is read the story and [then] picture it in their head; or join the military and go see what it’s like. If the AP wants America to know what it’s like in war, then they should go to the V.A. Hospital and talk to vets.

You leave that place physically for what you hope will be forever, but it stays with you mentally forever. It haunts your dreams. One sound or sight can remind you of it at anytime, anywhere.

Now, because of this picture, the other two Marines in the picture — every time they see it, they will be reminded of it and will go back to that place in their mind of such a dark time. I hate that place. All of us vets hide it the best we can, but it seems like it’s brought up too often.

I have respect for the press, people like yourself, Brian, but I feel like they should have respect for the dead, and especially the families of the dead, and not publish the photo. Let it be in black and white letters, not colorful pictures with so much red in them. It haunts you forever!

As much as I respect Funderburk — he is a friend now — I can’t agree with him. This is where journalist and Marine inevitably part. His loyalty is to the mission, the Corps, and his comrades. Mine — a journalist’s — must be to the public and to history.

In the current fractured and heavily politicized news environment this may sound grandiloquent and anachronistic. Anyone with an iPhone can be a journalist, we’re told. And these days, journalism can be anything — opinionated and unsourced blogs, the entertaining propaganda, pandering, and patter of cable news.

We journalists are not certified or licensed by any authority or organization, like plumbers or surgeons. Our standards are determined to a large degree by our audience, which also judges the success or failure of our work by consuming or ignoring it.

We journalists have little in our professional quiver of arrows besides our credibility and integrity. Forty years ago, many people paid attention to stories by a freelancer named Sy Hersh about a placed dubbed My Lai because he backed them up with gumshoe reporting — eyewitness testimony and carefully gathered facts. Gruesome photos made by Ronald Haeberle, a U.S. Army photographer, that day in 1969 supported Hersh’s reporting, as did other news accounts. It was a different time, with fewer contending media voices and an all-consuming war (with a draft, which naturally focused public attention), but many people gave credence to the harsh, sometimes graphic, reporting and photography from Vietnam — by Gloria Emerson, Sydney Schanberg, Wallace Terry, Don McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, Larry Burrows, Nick Ut, and others — because the work stood up to examination and critique. The vision was ugly, but it reflected the grim reality of a conflict that consumed millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

“People get killed in war. That’s what it’s all about,” Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, wrote to me an email. I resort to his book when I need historical perspective on current imbroglios over war coverage.

“Governments don’t like this being made obvious with photographs of their deaths. It’s considered bad for morale. So they try to censor and intimidate the media into not using them. It’s my belief that the media has been too complicit in this policy and that the more the reality of war is brought home to everybody — no matter how grueling this might be for relatives of the casualties — then the more likely it is that we’ll think twice about supporting any war.”

War is a public endeavor of the gravest importance; it is never a private matter, the comments of the Secretary of Defense notwithstanding.

Yes, each soldier and Marine is a unique individual with a history and loved ones. But abroad, on the streets of Iraq, in the mountains of Afghanistan, and in any of the myriad countries where U.S. troops are deployed, each service member is an instrument, often deadly, of our national power.

I believe that Ricky Funderburk, other service members who fought for this country, and their families have a right to look away from horrible — and horribly real — photos such as Jacobson’s image of Lance Corporal Bernard.

But the American public has a right to know what our fighting men and women are doing in our name, and what is happening to them. And as citizens, we have a responsibility to look, even when it shocks and discomfits us.

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