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September 5, 2009

Photo of a Dying Marine: The Larger View


Jacobson, in a journal she kept, recalled Bernard’s ordeal as she lay in the dirt while Marines tried to save their comrade with bullets overhead.

“The other guys kept telling him ‘Bernard, you’re doing fine, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it. Stay with me Bernard!’” As one Marine cradled Bernard’s head, fellow Marines rushed forward with a stretcher.

Later, when she learned he had died, Jacobson thought about the pictures she had taken.

“To ignore a moment like that simply … would have been wrong. I was recording his impending death, just as I had recorded his life moments before walking the point in the bazaar,” she said. “Death is a part of life and most certainly a part of war. Isn’t that why we’re here? To document for now and for history the events of this war?”

Later, she showed members of his squad all the images taken that day and the Marines flipped through them on her computer one by one.

“They did stop when they came to that moment,” she said. “But none of them complained or grew angry about it. They understood that it was what it was. They understand, despite that he was their friend, it was the reality of things.”

– from: AP via AOL referring to photographer Julie Jacobson’s documentation of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard being mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in Helmand province.

First, my condolences to the family of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard. Although I believe strongly in the release of this image, noting that a month had passed since his death (and the release of more heroic images), and that Joshua had since been buried and the family informed in advance that the photo would be published, I also recognize the family’s opposition and the additional pain it has caused.

That said, I have a few takes on the controversy surrounding the release of this photo….

1.  Given that the military’s rules for visually documenting images of American casualties is so restrictive that it effectively constitutes ongoing censorship and corporate media is so skittish in the face of political push back, the fact this single photo of an American casualty even made the light of day is quite remarkable.

2. In the reaction in the discussion boards I’ve been looking at, there has been relatively little discussion of the dynamics of embedding. One effect of this procedure is that the newswires offer up a steady and anesthetizing stream of sympathetic and non-remarkable “can-do” images that mostly defy a larger context, narrative or independent definition of the war.

In that sense, it’s unfortunate an image like the one above is forced to do so much work — not just shocking the public into considering the war as real, but also reminding us that war photos can actually function singularly, beyond the realm of military PR, as truly independent journalism.

3. Given that Joshua was fated to die, is there no value to the fact a visual record exists providing his family a fuller picture of his end — including his service in the days before he died as well as the record of his comrades responding to his death and honoring him afterward?

If most reports focus on this single image and the question of whether it is gratuitous or not, I believe the visual issue here is harder to parse than that. Ms. Jacobson’s presence as an embed with the company for days before and after necessitates that we consider the totality of the visual record as well as potential positive emotional benefit derived from showing the story (as opposed to the event) of Joshua’s death.

Put another way, for all the parents who have little or no picture of how their child died, and then wonder in vain, the question to consider is the relative merit of this sensitive a rendition of the place, the day, the mission. I would consider this context in watching Ms. Jacobson’s audio slideshow of what happened that day.

4. Given the military rules that the photo must be taken from ” a respectful distance,” I have reservations whether this image should be described as graphic, even if its been labeled that way by many of the media outlets that stepped up to show it.

5. It’s worth noting that the photo above serves as a sobering and, dare I say, vital counterpoint to what, up to now, has been the most celebrated photo of the Afghan war, an image causing the Secretary of Defense to gush that courage is: “Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops….” (See BNN’s: Pink skivvies: Whitewashing The Afghan Campaign.)

Anesthetization, indeed.

For an extremely good summary of the controversy surrounding this AP photo, see the write-up at the NYT Lens blog: Behind the Scenes: To Publish or Not? If you have a chance, also take a look at the discussion thread.

(h/t: Ken. image: Julie Jacobson/AP, August 14, 2009)

  • gunnysaccades

    “This is my rifle…”

  • bystander

    Tough piece. I recommend the associated links and, particularly, Julie Jacobson’s slide show and narration, and the comments to Behind the Scenes.
    As much as I feel a tremendous sympathy for the family, their wishes to have the photograph withheld, and their desire (and mine) to be shielded from further pain, I am glad the AP decided to publish. I wish more of these kinds of images could make it into the public record. We need them to fully understand our circumstance, and the outcome of our choices.
    Are we supposed to be lulled into thinking that these men and women in uniform are invincible? I can’t help but wonder if part of the family’s resistance is being confronted by the visible evidence that Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard was not. None of them are. And, we need to internalize that reality, as painful as it is for all of us.

  • lytom

    US with THEM
    Why is it that Neda’s dying was OK to look at and be posted?
    What serves the “interests” and in whose “interests” do we get to see the dead and dying?
    I cannot help but recall the sick photos of tortured men, their faces exposed.
    What about the innocent civilians?
    What about the presence of US and NATO armies in Afghanistan?
    What happened to the issue of War is NOT the answer?

  • hollyloudly

    What if Jacobson had taken photos of the deaths of:
    1st Lt. Roslyn L. Schulte 25 Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces Command St. Louis, Missouri Died of wounds suffered from a roadside bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 20, 2009…
    Lt. Florence B. Choe 35 Navy officer assigned to Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan El Cajon, California One of two sailors killed when an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire on personnel at Camp Shaheen in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, on March 27, 2009…
    Mar 30, 2009 … Pfc. Jessica Y. Sarandrea, 22, of Miami, Fla., died March 3 in Mosul, Iraq, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked her forward …
    Would AP execs have taken different “pains” after their “healthy” discussion over publication if it had been a Woman Marine whose death was caught? What if it were a colonel or a general?
    “Later, she showed members of his squad all the images taken that day and the Marines flipped through them on her computer one by one.
    They did stop when they came to that moment,” she said. “But none of them complained or grew angry about it. They understood that it was what it was. They understand, despite that he was their friend, it was the reality of things.”
    Were you all Stateside again, maybe at a ‘Hail and Farewell’ on base when you showed them, or were you still with Marines on a tour of duty in theater of war?
    “I shot images that day well aware that those images could very possibly never see the light of day. In fact I was sure of it.”
    Was this your state of mind when you shared them with the Marines?
    His father said No.
    @Cindy Sheehan- Every day is Memorial Day for too many people.

  • PhoenixRising

    I’m picking up the tab for this war, so it’s my responsibility to engage with the reality of what my taxes are buying.
    Young men and women are dying in the Afghan campaign. Julie Jacobson risked her life to photograph those images. (I mention her in memory of the first American reporter killed shooting film in Viet Nam, Dickey Chapelle. If you want to see a controversial photo, of a woman in Marine uniform being buried on the battlefield, click through there.) The other Marines in the disputed photo risked their lives attempting to save Joshua Bernard. Regardless of the feelings of one family–as it happens, their son caught it this time–those of us who are risking nothing need to know what is being done in our names.
    My cousin, a Special Ops commander with three kids, caught it and lost his hands. If there were a picture of that, if it were part of a collage of images showing what we’re really doing over there, his mama would walk a mile over broken glass to hand it off to the AP. Because people just don’t know, due to policy that makes this photo controversial.

  • yg

    it’s this image that hit me harder:

    he’s so young. he doesn’t even look like he’s past puberty. and being so skinny adds to the vulnerability. you don’t need graphic imagery to be horrified about somebody’s death.

  • bernini
    I wish Obama would pound the bully pulpit on the sheer lunacy for the Iraq War. Blood is seriously on our hands in the Fertile Crescent. Afghanistan, on the other hand, I get. Afghanistan: show me the bloody pictures, write gut-wrenching articles on how we may never win, etc. Bravery, valor, NATO, men, women, locals, Taliban, Bin Laden, hell yes! I’ll buy that upgrade. We should at least make one very focused, very serious (see: Bush, distracted, spine gone missing) and sustained effort to find the pseudo spiritual gangbangers behind the Trade Center attack. We seemingly continue to screw up with the drone air strikes, but it pales in comparison to the havoc we have wrought in Iraq. Easy to say in the comments section of a blog, I know. Hard – maybe impossible – to say to American service members who are sharing the mantle of duty. All the more reason to just stick to the top two or three “decision makers.” Call them out for all eternity for brokering a deal that even Faust would have turned down. Sacrificing our nations future for the illusion of “middle east stability” (read: oil, nation meddling, Powell falls on sword).
    Easier to just be a die hard Glenn Beck and just take this shit spoon fed and never think about the gray areas. Damn gray areas. Anyone got a fix for that bug yet…?

  • Jerry

    It’s an important picture. It’s an important discussion.
    No, not just “important.” “Essential.”

  • Stan B.

    We delighted when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf joked about the killing of Iraqi soldiers as he narrated their deaths in aerial video game mode during the first Gulf War. We think nothing of the havoc we later brought to Iraq as entire families were blown up daily on their own streets, and remaining family members abducted to prisons to be falsely imprisoned and tortured.
    While I can deeply respect the feelings and motivations behind the family of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard, I must strongly disagree with the role of censoring documentation of US battle deaths. We are absolutely free to publish and view a plethora of images featuring dead and mutilated bodies of “the other” from every corner of the world- and yet, when it comes to American dead (whose origins come from throughout said corners of the world), only then does it become sacrilegious, immoral and perverse; and therefore perpetrates the notion that American lives are somehow more worthy and sacred- and the rest of mankind significantly less. It’s the first crucial step that allows us license to consider and then execute the killing of whatever group or nation of people we so choose.

  • lq

    I don’t understand why AP asked the family. Let me say that my son was in the Air Force for 20 years (1985 – 2005, fought in every action during that period); I lived in dread the entire time, so I certainly understand why, if asked for permission to publish the photo, the family would have a difficult decision to make. However, I recall the photo that ran in every newspaper in the world during Katrina – the older lady sitting in the wheel chair for more than a day, and she was dead. Folks knew who she was; did AP or the photo agency employing the photographer, ask her relatives if it was OK to print the picture? Was the family of the Iranian woman who died on camera asked if it was OK to transmit that awful video? So why did AP ask the Marine’s family? It seems to me that if you ask, then you cede your authority. I’m not saying AP was right or wrong, but incompetently handled – unless they were being cynically exploitative. I can make no judgement on that, not knowing the players/management who decided to ask then ignore the answer.

  • Bigbalagan

    We need to see what we are doing over there. He was not just his family’s son, but my son.

  • Asta

    I can’t even comprehend the photo, his dying obscures the details. It that a hand? Is that blood? He’s too young to die.
    I am sick of this so called war. It’s a meat grinder, a show case for American/Chinese/Russian weaponry. An Expo in the Iraq Arena. Now showing at the Afghanistan IMAX.
    I never had children, but to echo Bigbalagan, he is my son, too.

  • Russ Nichols

    Editor and is running several pieces about the controversy surrounding this photo. Defense Sec. Gates didn’t want it published. Several papers have refused to run it.

  • tinwoman

    From an aesthetic point of view….an amazing photo, all dun colors, very dull except for that one crimson splash of blood coming out of his leg. Very coherent, couldn’t have been staged better.
    Besides this, the little irrigation stream, also dust colored, reminding us of the supposed humanitarian character of the war. Perhaps some Marine engineer assigned troops to dig that little canal to bring water to some field, hopeful the impoverished farmer would finally get a crop.
    Yes, our armed forces have such “good guys” too.
    But then…a Taliban grenade…the farmer’s silent support for his kinsman who fired it….the unknowableness of this war surging out, like the splash of blood.
    When we don’t know what we are doing any more, we should leave.
    But when the Afghans start to starve, we shouldn’t go in and dig any damn irrigation canals for them either. Let them eat their cussed poppies if that’s all they can grow.

  • Serr8d

    Many of us join Secretary Gates in condemning the Associated Press for its heartless and selfish decision to turn its back on the wishes of a grieving family in order to exploit the tragic death of a true American hero.
    Lance Corporal Joshua ‘Bernie’ Bernard was a selfless young American who sacrificed everything for our freedom.
    Shame on the AP for purposely adding to the grieving family’s pain. Ignoring the family’s wishes by publishing a sacred image of their loved one proved a despicable and heartless act by the AP. The family said they didn’t want the photo published. AP, you did it anyway, and you know it was an evil thing to do.
    Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bernard family. Words can not adequately express our sorrow and appreciation for your sacrifice. We will never forget your Marine or his fallen comrades.
    May God bless the Bernard family.
    -Sarah Palin

    There you go. Enough said.

  • Rafael

    Sacred image? Why is it sacred? Again, the double standard rears it’s ugly head. Nobody complains when we see images of Iraqi streets bathed in Iraqi blood, but show one injured/dead Marine and all hell goes into the proverbial handbasket. This is war, and it is cruel, bloody and destructive. We can not hide away from that simple fact.

  • Proud Liberal

    As a retired combat veteran I see nothing wring in the photo or the story, this is REAL LIFE this is what the last Administration hid from the American people, more of this should be shown specially on the evening news then maybe these CLOWNS on the right would sure REAL respect to the Military Veteran rather then the PHOTO OPS and LIP SERVICE that the give us now. Yes it is hard but what do Clowns like palin and pawlenty say about the REALITY of it all they make it into a PHOTO OP and a SOUND BYTR, this is worse then any TRUE portrayal of the Horrors of WAR.

  • snuff

    There you go again.

  • gryphon

    during the vietnam war images quite like this one were in the papers and magazines all the time as I recall. they helped stop it and save lives in the long run.
    some don’t want this image or baby chick grinders brought to the publics’ attention as it may reduce their ‘consumption’ in some way. oil, eggs, war, god, whatever..
    every new list of war dead that comes out I read their names out loud and look at their faces if there are photos.

  • bee

    I’m surprised that you know that there is a war going on in Afganistan and not Russia. We’ve heard your opinion long enough. I’m over here in this war, I want to see what’s going on, I want to know the good and the bad. There you go! Now that’s enough said!

  • Diane Stevens

    I think this is an excellent point to be made.
    Also, while we’ve lost over 4,000 USA military in Iraq, they’ve lost over 800,000 – military and civilian; think of that – think of seeing a picture (if it could be captured, which I doubt it would be in any way clear as this is), of 800,000 bleeding, dying individuals.
    On top of that not only the other wars and ‘hot-spots’, but the dying people who starve and are displaced; millions of them!
    They had no problems showing terrible photos from WWII; from Vietnam – I remember growing up and seeing these bloody huge photos from LIFE magazine and in the newspapers.
    If we saw more of this, we might get upset enough to DEMAND these wars be ended, but concealing them puts little or no face on the war, except for the families who’ve lost their loved ones, as well as their community and friends.

  • Diane Stevens

    Agree – 100%

  • wwjk

    That is one self-serving, cynical politician to try to gain traction with the gullible winger crowd by condemning a news agency for printing….news. And too bad the wingers are too gullible to see Palin for what she really is.
    There you go. Enough said.

  • Serr8d

    And too bad the wingers are too gullible to see Palin for what she really is.

    Hoo boy, this from one who’s elected the farthest-left politician this nation has ever suffered, Barack Hussein Obama. Who turn around and appoints people such as Van Jones and Cass Sunstein, who are even farther nutty-left, and then wonders why we’re opposed to them.
    This guy, Obama, represents the death of this nation, and the republic, as it was conceived, mark my words. He can go straight to hell AFAIC. The man sucks; the office is lessened.

  • Sinfonian

    Ah, the lamented Serr8d. I remember you from an earlier encounter, years ago. You poor, deluded soul.
    No, wait, that’s too sympathetic for a shitstain like you, who would tell our president to go to hell. As much as I despised George W. Bush and still do, I wouldn’t wish him dead, which is essentially what you are saying. Don’t even try to deny it.
    Anyway, I started to comment because I wanted to address the “merits” of what you said. President Obama, sadly, isn’t even that far left. Certainly from an economic standpoint, he’s far less liberal than FDR and probably even LBJ. Obama is at best a left-leaning centrist. I’d love to see you shit yourself if this country ever elected a real liberal.
    Oh, and in conclusion: our species is lessened by your existence.

  • Serr8d

    Sinfonian, I recall you not. But, being a simple internet troll, your existence matters little to me. Face to face, I would trounce you like the boy-man you obviously are; best for you that you are safely ensconced behind a keyboard in your darkened mother’s basement. Come see me, if you like. Or just eat shit and die; either way, I’d enjoy the outcome.
    As for Obama, he’s only holding back on unleashing his true beliefs because we’re watching, watching his every move. He couldn’t have sat in that unholy church, learning advanced Black Liberation Theology (aka Racism) for 20 years without absorbing Wright’s views (GOD DAMN AMERICA!), and he’s doing a fine job hiding those pathetic and marxist beliefs, for the moment. But at his core, Obama’s beliefs are farther left than FDR or Johnson (both who would probably have not appointed Obama to any federal post).
    In short, we are watching Obama. He will not find CHANGE easy to implement, at least to the degree he’d like. You, learn that, and learn it well.

  • Christen

    I think the choice to publish this photo, against the father’s request, post mortem, is utterly despicable. To have captured such an anguished and intimate moment, and then turn and let the world see it, when the family did not have the chance to say goodbye to their son, to hold him in their arms one last time, to comfort him at the moment of injury, is just beyond my comprehension. You lack in every way basic human compassion, decency, tact, and care. I hope one day one of your loved family members is killed, far away from you, and despite your request, the photos of their last moments released to the public. Perhaps then you can feel some of the anguish that you added to this family’s already agonizing ordeal.


    Wonder what would happen if Marines start posting photos of a dying AP Reporter on the net?,But I’m sure that would never happen. GUNNY KOON USMC Ret

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