Surfing the Spectacle

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Recently in eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber exploded near a U.S. military convoy. Afghan civilians claim American soldiers responded by firing on civilians, killing several innocent people. The U.S. military disputes this, and says the soldiers were fired upon after the bombing. At least eight people were killed.

Journalists working for the Associated Press arrived on the scene and took pictures. Marines forced the journalists to destroy all their images.


Was the military hiding something? An Army spokesperson defended the action this way:

“When untrained people take photographs or video, there is a very real risk that the images or videography will capture visual details that are not as they originally were.”

This is just the latest chapter in our government’s ongoing battle to control the images of war. Images can be embarrassing. Images can provoke viewers to ask disagreeable questions.

For instance: Why?


But the battle isn’t just about images that reveal wrongdoing. It is about hiding the war itself. Our culture considers it unseemly to show authentic images of mayhem, murder, war.

Dead soldiers, dead civilians? They exist all right. But not on American TV. Not for our eyes. That would send the wrong message. What message?

Bad things are happening.


You may recall that the U.S. government deemed it unlawful to show even a photograph of slain soldiers in their flag-draped coffins. The idea was that the very image of the coffin was a gesture of disrespect to the soldier’s families. Many believe, however, that our government wishes to conceal any image that reminds us of the price of war.

No matter. The images emerged anyway. That is the way of the world today. Images emerge.


Once legally petitioned, the Pentagon itself finally released photos of the fallen soldiers coming home. In these images, faces of soldiers are frequently blackened out (“redacted”) to cloak their identity, as if they were involved in some covert operation. They were not. They were helping to honor and bury their comrades.


Such pictures seem to capture the surreal and shaming battle over the images of war.

[The image at top is one of the few to emerge from that day. As for the coffins, this report gives some wider context.]

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