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May 1, 2005

Power Black Out


Apparently, the Administration has lost a bit of visual ground in the effort to sanitize the war.

In response to a second Freedom of Information Act request, the Pentagon has been forced to release the military photos of U.S. war dead dating back to 2001.  The release — in response to a request by professor and former CNN correspondent Ralph  –was honored a year late, and only after a follow-up law suit had been filed. 

To be as obstructionist as possible, however, the Pentagon has provided the raw images without dates, locations or any other identifying information.  In a move almost begging for The Onion or The Daily Show coverage, most faces and insignia in these photos have also been blacked out. 

The excuse for this cynical maneuver is that the participants didn’t consent to the photographs.  However, petitioners in the lawsuit point out that the Pentagon regularly posts images of soldiers on its web site.  That is not to mention that there are dozens of official and quasi-official military sites that regularly post images of soldiers in the field.

To deface (and make anonymous) the portrait of their return seems a strange way to honor the men and women who have died for our country.  If the government would go to these lengths, why document it at all?

(To view the full collection of these truly bizarre photographs, see the National Security Archive site here.)

(image: U.S. Department of Defense, April 29, 2005 in The Los Angeles Times, p.1)

  • Victor F.

    we like winners to have memorable faces. We like losers to bury their heads. Is this move an official acknowledgement that maybe we’re not doing so well in Iraq right now?
    Perhaps that may be a far-fetched interpretation. The only other thing I have to say about this photo is “faceless minions.” Like “Star Wars” storm troopers.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    at last, “glory” realized as shame.
    imho, these [redacted] images are destined to become iconic
    …they are many times more powerful than the unadulterated stock photographs. just as the soldiers were forbidden from raising the FLAG over a hard-fought port terminal near Basra, during the first 24-hours of the invasion (which set the tone = policy henceforth) here we see one end result; ie.,
    “New Kind of War” means without Old Glory

  • henri

    US State Censorship, USMIL Dictatorial Command, Republican Control of All Three Branches of Government… Nondescript Armed Men Issue Control?
    The US armed forces censors not only the individual in the photos, such a decision is indicative of the USMIL desire for controlled anonymity. There are Afghan citizen testimonials (see former UN human rights monitor, M. Cherif Bassiouni 21pg report) indicating that US soldiers conduct raids and arrests while wearing unidentifiable uniforms (ie no name tags, etc).
    Individual is not a synonym for uniform, yet actions accountable to some “bad apples” are representative of what when armed men carry no individual identity?
    “Army of One” is given a new meaning under such control.
    Does the “one” represent all, both in glory and revulsion, or are we allowed to pick and choose the imagery best suited for our reality, our own self-identity, and our illusion of control? Who defines the terms for you and I to live by, if not, at times, the actions of our unidentified armed American?
    Is your sense of the US military the same as the pentagon movers-and-shakers who rountinely hand out more and more responsibility to privateers? Are all of these men really soldiers of the US armed forces censored in the photos, or are some of them contract hands carrying the dead? When journalists and contractors are seen wearing fatigues and body armor, helmets, and sat-phones, do they look the part of the soldier? Who knows when the BDU is just a BDU and not a contracted hand running to the five-and-dime for a cherry coke?
    “he looked like _____!”
    “she walked like _____.”
    “he talked like _____.”
    “she acted like _____.”
    “he wants to be ____.”

  • Tyler Green

    Strikingly similar to the art of pioneering American artist John Baldessari:

  • George Myers

    It reminds me of Peter Straub’s book “The Throat” I was reading in Saratoga Springs, NY trying to magnetometer survey in 103F weather for the EPA a former “city gas” plant that produced as a by-product “coal tar” pretty nasty stuff (though made into aspirin and German fabric dye fortunes) and they wanted to know if it was going into the nearby springs (Old Red on Excelsior) or lake (through the drain system, also on a fault line said so also modern “Diablo Canyon” nuke plant in CA) in which the narrator, working with the body bags in Vietnam, years later solves an even earlier murder. Bag orders are monitored by peaceniks, water quailty standards for arsenic were held back by the Administration, strangely, many veterans of the Civil War were buried with as much as forty pounds of arsenic (and Mozart too).
    Incidently, the Native American Repatriation Act, signed by George HW Bush, requiring the return of native artifacts and burials, was perhaps started in reponse to the request by the Iroqouis in New York State, that someof their veterans buried overseas be reburied here in their native land, which as I understand it was refused, having once met their council’s “chief of chiefs” Leon Shenandoah and his successor Oren Lyons, a system Benjamin Franklin admired and suggested for our own in the mid 18th century.

  • Joy

    The redacted photos are far, far creepier looking to me than any uncensored picture of similar ceremonies I have seen. Especially the ones where lines of soldiers have had their faces wiped out with one long, linear blotch for the entire rank – not even individual censor bars, but one shared, dehumanizing stroke. How insulting to all concerned!

  • Michael Wasserman

    It seems pretty clear that the Administration is ashamed. It doesn’t think that the war has been worth the cost. Otherwise, it would be publishing these repatriation ceremonies, not concealing them.

  • Aaron

    Make sure all your comments are fully applicable to FDR’s war against Japan. No photos of US war dead until 1943 or ‘44.
    Was he ashamed of his war, too?
    The real reason behind these policies is that the Pentagon doesn’t want these photos to serve as propaganda either by the enemy or anti-war groups in the USA.

  • Aaron

    Oh, and your link has plenty of photos with the soldier’s faces not blacked out, or only a few faces blacked out.
    Logically, that means that some of the photos got permission and some didn’t. No big plan to dehumanize you or anything. Just legal CYA.

  • aethorian

    So they are not forgotten, substitute the Faces of the Fallen instead.
    In this image, the only human face among the blindfolded (to keep them from seeing…what?) is a chaplain, his eyes closed, walking the line out of the sun and into the shadow of death. To his left stands another rank of faceless soldiers, their humanity hidden by duty, saluting America as she is carried away.
    Censors, can’t you see what your work looks like? Plain images of American dead coming home are hard enough to see, but your blindness only hides the respect that is being shown.

  • Molly

    It really isn’t possible to compare photos of this war with photos of “FDR’s war” which is an interesting name; I would think flag wavers would WANT to trumpet the cause and outcome of America’s last great war – in that the objectives were clear and we “won”.
    The news business was different in the day of FDR. That was in the days when the average citizen held a portion of trust and respect for the government in general. Nixon took care of that.

  • Asta

    It’s interesting that the only face not blacked-out is the Minister’s. This reminds me of the “Faith above all else” philosophy that the Admin is trying so hard to sell us. If you have no Faith, you have no identity.
    I was also made aware of another little treatise concerning Faith by a friend,
    “Der Schulungsbrief”,
    Background: The Nazis presented themselves not as a political party, but as a movement with a worldview that claimed every aspect of life. In this, they made essentially religious claims. This article outlines the Nazi argument for the centrality of faith. It comes from Der Schulungsbrief, a monthly published by the party that had a circulation of several million in 1939. Nazi party block wardens encouraged every household to subscribe.
    Knowledge is that which can be measured by reason.
    Knowledge alone means nothing and is dead.
    § A wish that you can fulfill is called hope. Hope can easily come to nothing.
    § But faith can never fail, for faith is strength. Faith springs from your deepest feelings. It is that knowledge for which there is no explanation through reason. In faith the soul sees a part of the world order. It has a sense of that which should be, and sees through its eyes a part of the way that it should and can go. It knows that by going this way it fulfills god’s command and is working toward the great work that is immeasurable, incomprehensible.
    § Because faith sees this and can do it, it is more than human strength. It is a part of the enormous power that fills all life and all worlds. With faith, a person walks with the assurance of a sleepwalker. Who can resist him, for he follows the path of the highest will. He will succeed when he believes. No hand raised against him will divert him from his way. The bullet aimed at him will not hit as long has he has not finished his path, as long as he has not turned from it.
    well, you can see where this is going….

  • aethorian

    Molly said:

    The news business was different in the day of FDR

    War hasn’t changed much, so the news wasn’t that much different, although perhaps more liberal. After World War II began, it was almost two years before the U.S. government released images of American war dead on the battlefield. These were censored with the same criteria used today, and for the same reasons. From the WWII Timeline article on war news and imagery:

    In September 1943, the military released the first photographs of dead American soldiers. George Strock’s images of corpses on Buna Beach, New Guinea, appeared in Life, the largest- circulation picture magazine. The powerful pictures shocked some readers, but a greater number approved of the policy. The Washington Post argued that the pictures “can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won.” Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that. All were as anonymous as they could be made to be. Efforts were made to crop the photos or obscure the victims’ faces, name tags and unit insignia. The caption to Strock’s Buna Beach photo, “Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna”, told Life’s readers that they did not need to know the names of the dead in order to appreciate what they had done.
    …Hometown papers published the names and faces of the casualties. Nevertheless, most such stories were one-dimensional, treating the dead as heroes but lacking the details that would have individualized them. In the broader view of the war, coverage of battlefield developments treated the dead as statistics on a scoreboard: how many killed and wounded suffered by each side.
    This kind of reporting sprang partly from the U.S. government’s efforts to avoid the negative in news reporting from the war zone. For example, Navy Secretary Frank Knox told his public relations officers in March 1942 to “do their utmost to secure press cooperation in toning down the gruesome details of sinkings, particularly the news regarding tankers,” and Roosevelt that same year directed the OWI
    [Office of War Information] and Office of Censorship to avoid stories about fatal accidents among military personnel unless the accidents already were widely known. The managing editor of the Christian Science Monitor argued late in 1943 that this government effort to “hold back and play down American casualties” was pervasive and gave the public an optimistically distorted view of the war.

    Sounds pretty familiar, but the political climate was considerably different then. From Digital Journalist’s comments on the Buna Beach photo:

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt was convinced that Americans had grown too complacent about the war, so he lifted the ban on images depicting U.S. casualties. Strock’s picture and others that followed in LIFE and elsewhere had the desired effect. The public, shocked by combat’s grim realities, was instilled with yet greater resolve to win the war.

    With American opinion today strongly (or at least more openly) divided on the war in Iraq, the current administration will never voluntarily release images like Buna Beach. Should the Iraq war unfortunately continue, future administrations of whatever stripe will probably not do so either. However, technology now gives the ability to sanitize things even more, as Brian Moss’s digitized version of Buna Beach (in his Absence series) demonstrates.
    The memory holes yawn wider.

  • aethorian

    Tyler Green said:

    Strikingly similar to the art of pioneering American artist John Baldessari:

    John BaldessariWar and Aerobleu.
    Rene Magritte also — The Great War and The Son of Man. Regarding the latter, Magritte said:

    Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

  • Gaianne

    Hard to believe it was meant, but to me all the blacking-out says:
    Like when mafia dons cover their faces from the press at an arraignment.
    It is also sinister and scary, emotions the DoD would perhaps like to project. But it does not alleviate the ignomy and disgracefulness one bit:
    Do others read it this way?

  • lsdf

    lesson for today from the and pentagon: WEAR A MASK!
    blacking out the faces is a smart, “forward-thinking”, idea. god knows you don’t want photos that someone can look at on a later date and say, “he didn’t wear any form of identification, but I’ll never forget his face. He’s one of them who conducted the raids!”
    too bad for those son’s-of-bitches carrying out the torture in the photos at abu ghraib. they all should have worn some fucking masks! You know the military would deny a hooded torturer was an american soldier, just like they deny there was any pentagon or white house policy connection. “Nope”, says the generals, “them poor white boys carried out the torture all on their lonesome. god knows how they coordinated the same techniques in three different countries.”
    The generals and white house policy makers that got the poor white soldiers to do the dirty work are “faceless” creeps that will never go to jail because you got to put a face to a crime.
    I’ll never understand why so many of us poor folk continue to sign up to do the dirty work of the carpetbaggers and charlatans who, after stealing and securing the treasures, toss us all off to the side like dirty rags. In the worst cases, the faceless creeps will throw us all to the dogs for carrying out orders they once crowed as honorable.

  • Drew Thaler

    Wow. What creepy-ass pictures. As an American citizen I’m bothered more than a little bit by them; what harm is there exactly in showing the faces of an honor guard? Is it just institutionalized paranoia spilling outward? It reminds me of Vonnegut’s comment in Slaughterhouse Five where he mentions finding out that the details of the bombing of Dresden were not being revealed, even well after the war.

    I wrote the Air Force back then [1964, almost twenty years after the end of the war], asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
    I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God — from whom?”

    I’m particularly struck by this one. The original photo was a line of American soldiers — sons and daughters of our country — showing their respect for the fallen. After deliberately anonymizing the entire line of faces, they’re left with a disturbing resemblance to Star Wars stormtroopers.
    The comments about it coming off as shame are spot-on; like it or not that’s the effect you get. That’s doing the soldiers a great disservice.

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