A few days ago, the journalist Sebastian Junger visited West Point, where I am on the history faculty. He was there to show Restrepo, his documentary film about a U.S. Army combat team deployed on a dangerous assignment in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, and then do an on-stage interview with me in front of an audience of cadets and members of the general public. When it was planned many months ago, Junger was to have been joined by Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who was Junger’s equal partner in the making of this film (they were co-directors), but two weeks before their appointed visit to West Point this month, Hetherington was killed by a mortar while covering the Libyan civil war near the city of Misrata. He was one of two cameramen who died in the attack. The other was Chris Hondros of Getty Images. Junger came to West Point anyway, and among the reasons he cited for not cancelling was the feeling that an audience composed of soldiers and would-be soldiers was precisely the kind of place where he should be as he coped with his grief.
In an essay in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, executive editor Bill Keller wrote compellingly about the bravery of Hondros, Hetherington (pictured above) and other combat photographers, referencing the oft-quoted advice that Robert Capa, another great war photographer, gave to his protégés who asked him how they could get better, more vivid pictures: “get closer.” (Capa himself was killed by a landmine while covering the First Indochina War in 1954.) The Junger-Hetherington film Restrepo, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is effective precisely because its directors do get “closer” than ever at capturing the miserable, dangerous, bravado-infected society that is familiar only to soldiers and those who seek to tell their story. As Keller points out, the war photographer’s work does not allow him to avert his eyes. Like soldiers, they see the gruesome and the shocking and hold it within their gaze so that truth can be portrayed to those of us who are not there. That is why so many of them suffer the same post-traumatic-stress disorder that soldiers experience. Once you have seen certain things up close — maybe too close for the human mind — it can become impossible to not see them, in your dreams, in your fantasies, in your understanding of the world you inhabit.
No members of the press – no reporters, no cameramen – were invited along when the Navy SEALS of Team Six raided bin Laden’s compound and shot the al Qaeda leader dead, but we know that at least one member of the team arrived with a camera and took pictures showing, we are told, bin Laden’s head blown in half and while the Obama administration made the decision not to release these apparently gruesome photos, they are being shown now to select members of Congress. There was also video; indeed, we know that President Obama followed the raid in real time through a video feed, a scene which suggests a technological equivalent to Abraham Lincoln sitting in the telegraph office at the War Department reading updates from the battlefields of the Civil War as they came rolling in on the machine. Of course, Lincoln read words; Obama watched pictures.
A generation ago, pictures shot by Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows and other great photojournalists helped Americans achieve their most visceral understanding of the war in Vietnam. Through those pictures, as well as film shown on the evening news, Americans witnessed up close, and then even closer, the awful brutality that has forever been the regular fare of war. Gradually they turned against American participation. The nation’s mission may have been based on a misguided notion of the threat posed by communism, particularly in a Third World country like Vietnam, and as we later learned the Pentagon’s prosecution of that war was riddled with lies. Still, there remains in some quarters the bitter feeling that it was the journalism – particularly photojournalism – that brought defeat on America in Vietnam if only because it showed what war was really like and seeing it for the first time, people found what was being done in their name to be utterly repugnant.
Given such context, one has to wonder, what would have been our reaction to the bin Laden death pictures? Would they have satisfied our wish for retribution or made us uncomfortable with our own tribal sense of revenge? Would they have provided us closure or, upon seeing the shots of bin Laden’s body being washed and blessed in a Muslim ritual, would we be further enraged that he was given a peaceful sending off when our own loved ones were at his inspiration pulverized into dust? Among Muslims, would the image of a dead bin Laden, inert and bloodied, have further destroyed the myth of his invincibility – so much of the fascination with him came from his having eluded the grasp of the world’s most powerful nation – or would it have enflamed a new level of wrath? Would the experience of seeing such evidence of the killing, undertaken as an act of war, have corrupted our ability to judge it as just and necessary? And finally, does it matter? Should information be kept from the public because of worries over how that information might be understood? Throughout history, governments have kept hideous information secret because they worried how the public might perceive it.
Long before Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase, “sunshine is the best disinfectant” (what a wonderful image, light bringing purity), the framers subscribed to the substance of these words. Through the protection provided to the press by the First Amendment, they wanted to be certain that a “fourth estate” was allowed to hold the other three estates responsible for the truth. Of course, the framers had no cameras and could not imagine a day when still and video images would often convey the truth – or, more accurately, some version and often a competing version of the truth — more powerfully than words.