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November 17, 2011

LA Times Deifies, Mythologizes Fallen Troops. What Friendly Fire?

Last week was Veterans Day.  To commemorate the occasion, a group of Marines, veterans, and widows carried a 13-foot wooden cross to the summit of a hill at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.  The cross replaced one erected eight years earlier by Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment before the unit deployed to Iraq. In the interim, a brushfire had destroyed the first cross, and three of the original seven Marines who carried it, Lance Cpl. Robert Paul Zurheide, Maj. Raymond Mendoza and Capt. Douglas Zembiec had died in Iraq.

For nearly a week the front page of the Los Angeles Times website has displayed images of the memorial. The photos, taken by Pulitzer Prize winning staff photographer Rick Loomis, accompany an article, “Marines erect cross on Veterans Day to honor fallen comrades,” written by the Times’ San Diego Bureau Chief Tony Perry. Both experienced journalists covered this battalion extensively while participating in the embedded press system in Iraq in 2004.

In one frame of the online slide show at the LAT Framework photo blog, Loomis depicts Elena Zurheide kneeling over a wooden cross that is draped with a folded American flag as an unidentified female looks on. It is a somber moment. The caption notes that her husband “was killed in Iraq while she was pregnant with her son Robbie, who is now seven.” The text of the article notes simply that “Zurheide was killed in Fallujah.”

More precisely, Elena’s husband, Lance Cpl. Zurheide, was killed in early 2004, when a mortar shell launched by fellow Marines landed in the middle of several Marines seeking cover during a firefight. Although the death was initially accounted for by hostile fire, more than two years after his death, the Marine Corps officially acknowledged that it was actually friendly fire that claimed Zurheide’s life.

During a phone interview, Perry discussed the 2004 incident and his decision-making process behind the article. It was a short round… a friendly fire incident, but it wasn’t really relevant to the story.”

Without listing specific details about each soldier, the limited context notes that “Mendoza was killed in 2005 while leading Marines into combat near the Syrian border [and] Zembiec was killed in 2007 while leading a raid on insurgents in Baghdad.” Reiterative use of the verb ‘lead’ and the nouns ‘raid’ and ‘combat’ frames these deaths rhetorically.  In conjunction with the visual symbolism embodied by the images – Christ-like comparisons to the scene at Golgotha evoke concepts of suffering, self-sacrifice, and ultimate redemption – the context that these Marines died as leaders in combat maintains the accepted mythology of ‘the way Americans die.’

While Perry was certainly constrained by space and scope, the absence of any context regarding Zurheide’s death is a significant omission that reduces the complexity and accuracy of the entire visual narrative. According to Perry, “all [the Marines] died in combat. That was the salient point. It wasn’t a concerted effort to avoid the friendly fire issue. It’s an important topic, but it doesn’t need to be dealt with every time it’s tangential to a story.”

Nonetheless the process of interpretation relies on a complete framework for accuracy.  For example, when Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was lambasted for ‘staging’ the iconic image at Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, it was not because the photo was posed or manipulated. Instead, Rosenthal’s crime was a failure to provide a balanced perspective of earlier events: notably, that it was not the first flag-raising that day.

It is true that Lance Cpl. Zurheide, Maj. Mendoza and Capt. Zembiec were killed during combat operations. Then again, it is also true that fellow Marines launched a mortar that killed Lance Cpl. Zurheide.  The exclusion of this difficult issue while constructing a heroic reporting of war deaths is unfortunate (especially the way Mr. Loomis’ composition so powerfully evokes Iwo Jima): fratricide does not diminish the level of service or sacrifice by soldiers who pay the ultimate price.

Note — Robert Zurheide practically hidden from sight, third from right. LAT Caption: The original cross was brought to the top in 2003 by, from left to right, Doug Zembiec, Jason Duty, Ray Mendoza, Scott Radetski, Robert Zurheide, Cpl. Dobberten (no first name available ) and Shannon Book.   Zembiec, Zurheide and Mendoza were all killed in action and the replacement cross was dedicated in their honor.

Furthermore, the omission of context here reveals not only the influence of ideology in how we do or don’t represent such losses, but also how reductionist reporting damages our cultural understanding of war deaths over time. According to Perry, “Journalism is the first draft of history.” Yet, when improperly placed in a historical framework, a partial account of combat-related deaths fosters an amputated discussion of war. With full disclosure, these memorial  expressions can do what we really need from them, which is to kindle deeper connections and reflections, and more fiercely engage the hard truth.

– Brandon Thomas

Brandon Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of the Conflict Images Journal and a graduate student with the Department of International Relations at San Francisco State University. An alumnus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, he recently returned from a US State Department Critical Language Scholarship in Turkey. His research focuses on the role of media in foreign policy.

(photos: Rick Loomis/LA Times; Joe Rosenthal/AP)

  • Notfullyformed

    I’m sure Jesus would be so proud! Who would Jesus kill?

    • Gpacharlie

      Apparently He will toss Satan into the Lake of Fire for Eternity.

  • Anonymous

    While I dislike the glorifying of combat deaths, I can’t help but think that the circumstances of Lance Cpl. Zurheide’s death must be exquisitely painful for his wife and family. I don’t find it suspicious or offensive that friendly fire was not mentioned in the article; I believe it was done out of respect for Mrs. Zurheide, who surely doesn’t need to review that particular aspect every time his death is mentioned.

    What I find offensive is the staging of this cross-raising to resemble the flag-raising in Iwo Jima. In attempting to honor their fallen comrades the Marines have produced a cheap trick. I suppose everything reverts to that past glory because there is no glory in our current wars.

    The religious nature of the memorial is offensive as well. I say this for the usual reason – the cross is a Christian symbol, not an American symbol – but also because the soldiers raising the cross are more reminiscent of the soldiers on Calvary than they are the soldiers on Iwo Jima.

    • Thomas

      The absolutely extraordinary lengths taken to to prevent anybody—family or public—from learning the true circumstances of Pat Tillman’s death is more than enough to clarify just how seriously pro-war officials take friendly fire death as a pr problem.
      Anybody working in a capacity of public trust today that would specifically and intentionally omit mention of a friendly fire death is doing so in the shadow of the Tillman affair. Which means Perry is either too soft-headed to recognize the political weight of his position, or his sympathies are driving his editorial decisions more his trust in his reader’s ability to sort out the facts for themselves. Only he knows for sure, but this piece at least let’s him know how it looks to others. And it ain’t good.

    • Gpacharlie

      The glory is in the young men and women of a nation two oceans and a desert away willing to come to the aid of 26,000,000 people enslaved by a madman tyrant who is so cowardly that when he is beat hides in a hole in the ground like a mole.

  • Anonymous

    While I dislike the glorifying of combat deaths, I can’t help but think that the circumstances of Lance Cpl. Zurheide’s death must be exquisitely painful for his wife and family. I don’t find it suspicious or offensive that friendly fire was not mentioned in the article; I believe it was done out of respect for Mrs. Zurheide, who surely doesn’t need to review that particular aspect every time his death is mentioned.

    What I find offensive is the staging of this cross-raising to resemble the flag-raising in Iwo Jima. In attempting to honor their fallen comrades the Marines have produced a cheap trick. I suppose everything reverts to that past glory because there is no glory in our current wars.

    The religious nature of the memorial is offensive as well. I say this for the usual reason – the cross is a Christian symbol, not an American symbol – but also because the soldiers raising the cross are more reminiscent of the soldiers on Calvary than they are the soldiers on Iwo Jima.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always read that Rosenthal acknowledged from the get-go that the iconic photo was not the original but a carefully composed re-creation. Don’t know if that’s true, but I think it makes a difference. At that time JR could not/would not have challenged the use of the photo for propaganda. But a photographer should not be held accountable for the way his/her work might be used as propaganda by the photographer’s employer, let alone the way it’s appropriated by public appropriation Not without further evidence.

    Deliberately to stage a recreation where the U.S. flag is equated to the cross favored by Western Christians seems reprehensible to me. I respect the U.S.  flag, and I respect the symbols of Western Christianity and every other major religion. But it’s wrong to imply that the symbol of the U.S. is interchangeable with the symbol of any religion.

    Continuing that line of thought, how do you suppose the media and the blogosphere — especially the right-wing media and blogosphere — would react if some group were to erect the symbol of any other religion above a Marine base? Should any such symbol be acceptable? Should one or another religion be specially privileged?

    • Gpacharlie

      Do they volunteer to train and to fight the wars to keep us free? Well, then, yes!

  • Anonymous

    God bless every Marine.

    But Iwo Jima was as much a learning experience as an icon. To fail to honor this is to fail those who made it so.

  • Ed USAF Ret.

    I have to agree with the
    decision not to include a divergent story line about friendly fire being the
    cause of death for Lance CPL Zurheide. It would have taken away from the story as a whole. 
    It was  import for  her to hear the truth. It wasn’t import on a
    day when we remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. I would ask,
    what about those who have died while on active duty but during peace time in
    training accidents, test flights, or simply traveling from one location to
    another while performing official duties. 
    We don’t go after the military for not publicizing the incident or
    reporters who don’t cover the stories.  Personally it is a shame the position was
    taken to make the LA Time or anyone associated with the story villains.

    • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

      So now the truth “takes away from the story as whole”?

      How so?

      And no, I reject the uniform fetishism of labeling any military related death as “heroic”. Tragic, yes, heroic no, unless you want to deprive the word of any meaning.

  • http://shellcreditcardonline.net sHelL crEdIt

    Lance Zurheide was killed during projects of Shell, in Marines.Shell is a huge gas company, so this fact was very drastic for shell.

    • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

      Oh the irony of a spam bot whose nails the truth through gibberish.

    • Gpacharlie

      They said the same thing about Shell in Viet Nam. Prove it. Prove the connection, and don’t buy their gas.

  • http://shellcreditcardonline.net sHelL crEdIt

    Lance Zurheide was killed during projects of Shell, in Marines.Shell is a huge gas company, so this fact was very drastic for shell.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ekaterina-Ungefug/100001772568431 Ekaterina Ungefug

    Denotation: 5 people-4 male, 1 female, Caucasian outlook, all of them pulling a cross up the hill; some greenery; a horizon; some roads at the far back and hills.
    Frame: the people with the cross seem to be the focus of the photograph.

    Connotation and framework:
    This photo has been taken Rick Loomis. They have been published last week with the article “Marines erect on Veterans Day to honor fallen comrades,” written by Tony Perry in Los Angeles Times. The 13-foot wooden cross was put by a group of Marines, veterans, and widows on a hill at Marine Corpse Base Camp Pendleton, California. It replaced the one that was put there 8 years ago by a group of Marines (three of whom are no longer alive anymore) but was destroyed as a result of bushfires occurred in the area.
    Level 3: The application of all 11 signifying practices can be applied in this case; however, I would like to focus on two of them, those are exhibition and memorialization. This cross has been put for the purpose of commemoration the occasion. This cross is the way of memorialization of those who has have been killed in Iraq.
    Level 4:

    8 years ago a group of Marines put a wooden cross on a hill too. Among 7 people on the picture 3 of them have been killed in Iraq.
    In such a way this new cross is symbolic for the Americans as the way to remember about these three Marines as well, as about all of those whom the nation lost in a war in Iraq. The cross and this group photo next to it, resemble the history in which the crusaders went to other parts of the world to promote their belief system and to acute more territory and wealth. This war with Iraq has been close to religious believes too splitting up the world on two parts: Muslims and not…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509323471 Luzdary Hammad

    I find the comparison of the image of the raising of the cross
    to the image at Iwo Jima of the raising of the American flag is very interesting
    because they attempt to represent the same ideology, which I think they fail to
    do. I understand the significance of choosing a cross, since it signifies pain
    and sacrifice, but it also signifies a religion that not every American or
    American soldier follows. I think people should be very cautious while picking
    what they want to represent their cause and in this case I don’t think picking
    a cross was the smartest or most effective representation for their cause. The
    United States constitution clearly states that there is freedom of religion,
    but with occurrences like these, it is obvious that a religion is preferred and
    the cross was chosen to represent all fallen soldiers no matter what religion
    they followed. Out of all the images in this article, the images of the people
    carrying the cross up a hill can be directly linked to the Bible stories of
    Jesus carrying a heavy, large cross by himself to the place where he will be
    crucified. To me, this Christian mentality is the strongest representation that
    stands out from these images, a mentality that not everyone follows.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrea-Valles/1267468038 Andrea Valles

    The image with the seven
    marines, who originally put up the wooden cross, is powerful in the fact that
    it shows how much military personal appreciate and honor those that have fought
    before them. The same can be said for the Loomis image of the two marines
    setting up the new cross form this past Veterans Day. However, it seems more
    focused on memorializing the marines who have died from the first group rather
    than the entire military. It’s understandable that people are having an issue
    with the fact that some of the marines were killed from friendly fire, but it
    shouldn’t be significant in this representation. It seems to symbolize more the
    fact that these were marines who fought for our country and, despite the way in
    which they died, they deserve to be remembered just as much as those who have
    died in combat. The second image is a great way for the families and friends to
    exhibit for everyone to see that they appreciate what their loved ones have
    done and decided to respect them in a way that they obviously found meaningful
    since that was how the seven marines showed their thanks and respect for
    veterans.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000078165304 Lovelie Faustino

    In regards to the image of Elena Zurheide kneeling over the wooden cross, photographer Rick Loomis obviously wanted to use the photograph as a narration of the sacrifice of Elena’s husband, Lance Cpl. Zurheide made when he was killed during war. A cross covered by an American flag represents American Marines who died, in the same light as Jesus. It is understood by religious believers that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice of death and people are honoring the American Marines on the same field. The fact that Zurheide was killed by friendly fire displays irony in the flag that splays over the cross. Zurheide died but another American Marine was the cause of that death. The image alone of Elena Zurheide would stir pride and empathy from any proud American. It is a natural human reponse to feel empathy over someone who appears solemn and heartbroken. We witness a quiet moment similar to a wife visiting a husband’s gravesite. Pride is represented through the American flag; even though it is a depressing occurrence to witness, as Americans we can be proud and honor a courageous man who died during the war. When background information is given, the image might impact people to express anger. If people are familar with the Pat Tillman story, they could elicit it after reading Tony Perry’s story because another friendly fire incident is hidden from the public.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000103976345 Fabiola Cristina

    In the photograph where Elena Zurheide is kneeing and touching the wooden cross, it does not only depicts Christianity, but also sorrow. Even though the wooden cross is not a symbol of the United States, it does represent the faith Elena and other soldiers have. Furthermore, the American flag on top of the cross could represent the many lost lives of American soldiers, including her husband Cpt. Robert Zurheide. A cross is also a symbol of Christianity that represents God. In times, where soldiers are risking their lives for their country, many of them seek some type of holly protection or follow their faith. In the case of Elena, the wooden cross represent what her husband believed in, and the reminder of her husband’s death. In the photograph of 2003, where her husband is standing right next to a cross almost hiding, it can be assumed that he’s touching or leaning on the cross, just like Elena is doing in 2011 photograph. It’s also a symbol of memorialization and identification as she is touching a similar cross that her husband once touched. The cross is a memorial to her, where she will be able to visit and continue to grieve her husband’s death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ekaterina-Ungefug/100001772568431 Ekaterina Ungefug

    My attention has
    been drawn to two photographs: one with 5 people caring the cross to the hill
    and the other with the group of 7 Marines next to the cross: two
    photographs-one narration where, just with the acceptance of 8 years, both of
    the images seem to be the parts of one story, and follow each other like the
    events of one day: first, bringing the cross up, and then making the pictures
    next to it.

    This cross is an
    exhibition and a memorialization of the sacrifice and suffering of those who
    have been killed in Iraq. In such a way this cross becomes a significant symbol
    for the Americans, as a religious representation of their national believes.
    The usage of the religious content makes me to think about the history of the
    crusaders. They also went to other parts of the world to promote their belief
    system and to gain more wealth. This war with Iraq has been close to religious
    believes too by the way it has split up the world on two parts: Muslims and the
    rest. I think that the usage of cross with the purpose of commemoration is a
    little bit simplistic and provocative.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ekaterina-Ungefug/100001772568431 Ekaterina Ungefug

    My attention has
    been drawn to two photographs: one with 5 people caring the cross to the hill
    and the other with the group of 7 Marines next to the cross: two
    photographs-one narration where, just with the acceptance of 8 years, both of
    the images seem to be the parts of one story, and follow each other like the
    events of one day: first, bringing the cross up, and then making the pictures
    next to it.

    This cross is an
    exhibition and a memorialization of the sacrifice and suffering of those who
    have been killed in Iraq. In such a way this cross becomes a significant symbol
    for the Americans, as a religious representation of their national believes.
    The usage of the religious content makes me to think about the history of the
    crusaders. They also went to other parts of the world to promote their belief
    system and to gain more wealth. This war with Iraq has been close to religious
    believes too by the way it has split up the world on two parts: Muslims and the
    rest. I think that the usage of cross with the purpose of commemoration is a
    little bit simplistic and provocative.  

  • topuklu ayakkabı

    Topuklu Ayakkabı
    perfect :)  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Elizabeth-Bermudez/100001359830832 Elizabeth Bermudez

    Propaganda influences the masses by appealing to
    their emotions. Its negative connotations and its biased system are a direct cause
    for people to be weary about the genuine truth. Propaganda therefore is a
    useful tool in shaping public opinion. The Los Angeles Times distorts the truth
    by not mentioning how U.S soldiers exactly died. Most U.S. propaganda consists
    of false information that lacks coherent facts about the death of soldiers. Writings
    based on activity overseas, is a traditional reflection of American patriotism.
    One’s loyalty to their country may make them vulnerable to feel sympathy for
    widows who may have to raise a family on their own. Articles cannot be fully
    trusted in its totality; for example, the Marine Corps declared Lance Cpl.
    Zurheide died due to hostile fire but it was only later that they came to
    terms that he was killed by their own forces, commonly known as friendly fire.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daiki-Mochizuki/100001972544122 Daiki Mochizuki

    The United States has pushed propaganda to the anti-terrorism war and stirred up Americans’ patriotic fervor for long time. Especially, since the mass media can easy to manipulate public opinion, it has had an absolutely vital role in waving the flag. For instance, we are able to see propaganda the Los Angeles times’ article because the author perverts a fact that just telling us a U.S soldier died even though he died by friendly fire, not hostile fire. In fact, this kind of propaganda makes the citizens strengthen their solidarity against the anti-terrorism war. Therefore, the article is not worth believing, and we should develop our media literacy into the mass media.

  • Amy C.

    The death of Lance Cpl. Zurheide and any other American soldier
    is no doubt a tragedy, but journalists provide us with news, and it should be
    nothing but the truth. Purposely withholding information makes a journalist
    completely unreliable, in my opinion. The media is already incredibly biased,
    and propaganda is everywhere we turn. Most Americans (including myself at
    times) will read an article from a big media outlet, such as the LA Times, and
    believe every word without question. The LA Times article was most certainly
    read by thousands and thousands of people, and it persuaded people to think
    something that is not true. I do think this is a form of propaganda because our
    government and the media do not want to admit that a lot of casualties and
    injuries result from friendly fire. I do agree that how Lance Cpl. Zurheide
    died does not change the fact that he was brave and risked his life by being in
    combat, but that does not mean we, as Americans, do not deserve the truth.  I applaud all soldiers for putting their
    lives on the line everyday, but I also look down on the media for providing
    this false information.

  • Amy C.

    The death of Lance Cpl. Zurheide and any other American soldier
    is no doubt a tragedy, but journalists provide us with news, and it should be
    nothing but the truth. Purposely withholding information makes a journalist
    completely unreliable, in my opinion. The media is already incredibly biased,
    and propaganda is everywhere we turn. Most Americans (including myself at
    times) will read an article from a big media outlet, such as the LA Times, and
    believe every word without question. The LA Times article was most certainly
    read by thousands and thousands of people, and it persuaded people to think
    something that is not true. I do think this is a form of propaganda because our
    government and the media do not want to admit that a lot of casualties and
    injuries result from friendly fire. I do agree that how Lance Cpl. Zurheide
    died does not change the fact that he was brave and risked his life by being in
    combat, but that does not mean we, as Americans, do not deserve the truth.  I applaud all soldiers for putting their
    lives on the line everyday, but I also look down on the media for providing
    this false information.

  • LanceThruster

    It’s amazing the iconagraphy of the cross. As one wag comic put it, if Jesus was executed by electrocution, xians would be wearing litte electric chair pendants around their necks.

    • Gpacharlie

      They had not invented the use of electricity then……..and if Hitler had won you would be wearing a funny looking moostache.

  • Luke

    In both situations, both the raising the flag WWII and the battle
    of Iwo Jima and the raising of the cross by veterans of the “war on terror”,
    the enemy has been rhetorically dehumanized through representation. Part of
    this dehumanization consisted of emphasizing their identification as othered
    and non-Christian. Christianity has been rhetorically attached to U.S.
    nationalism, and has been used to revise the motives of much of U.S. official
    policy. In the Iwo Jima image, the raising of the Flag as a sign of success and
    nationalism was manufactured and then repetitively printed in the U.S.
    corporate media to instill simultaneous hope in the hearts of U.S. citizens and
    nationalistic camaraderie among U.S. service members.

    In the image of the rising cross, the combination of
    Christian symbolism, inherently nationalistic in the U.S. context and U.S.
    military personnel make for an extremely charged memorialization able to
    manufacture a unified sentiment among citizens and military personnel. In the
    case of the Japanese we were combating Japanese nationalism, while in the war
    on terror we are combating a manufactured Islamic menace.  Thus, both images re-affirm the othered
    nature of the manufactured enemy and the success of our ideology, be it
    nationalism or religion, over the opposition. 

  • ElenaZurheide

    I would like you all to know….That just because this was a “cross” does not mean I helped put it up on that mountain for “god”. I did it so my son Robert Zurheide III could walk those same steps his father did. I did it out of respect for the Marines that died and for my husband. I could care less if this was a cross or a headstone. Either way I would have made that trek up that mountain. Every one is quick to judge that its a symbol of “god”. ATM I don’t even know if there is a “god”. But I did this as an honor to my husband and all other Marines who we have lost in a useless war. I am very disappointed in my government for hiding the truth in my husbands death, does that change the way I feel about how I honor my husband NO! Now what I don’t like is when people talk down to me about how I honor my husband and my son’s father. Who gives a shit if a cross is meant for symbolic reasons of religion…what matters is how it got up there and why it was put up there and who did it!. I love my husband now just as much and I did before he died. I miss him deeply and I found the best way to honor my husband in my own way. It will break my heart to see this “cross” be removed. Like I said I didnt do this for this so called god you people talk about I did it out of Honor of my husband. And if anyone has a problem with it stop talking about it behind my back and shield it away from me say it to MY FACE! 

  • Gpacharlie

    I wish the atheist grups would leave the theist groups alone. These simple acts of memorialization are healing, kind, and compassionate for the friends, families, fellow servicemembers, and a grateful nation. For ateists they are attacks which are bitter, small minded, hard hearted, and so very unkind to the 1% of the population that volunteer to put their lives on the line so that you atheists could have your petty moments of freedom and demonstration.

  • http://shellcreditcardonline.net sHelL crEdIt

    there is no irony of spam, so you’d better not post such ideas.

  • http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ Ralfast

    Face palm!

  • Scarabus

    Please, Charlie! Those who have volunteered and trained and fought have been a cross-section of our nation demographically. That includes religious as well as other demographic elements.

    United we have stood. Divided? We would have fallen. Our strength lies in our common patriotism, not in our religious or other divisiveness. For example…

    During WW II? Nisei outfits included Christians, but also adherents of Shinto and Buddhism. Most Navaho “code-talkers” (crucial to our success in the Pacific) were adherents of their own indigenous faith. Joe Rosenthal, who took the photo, was a Jew – as were many of the troops who died on Iwo Jima.

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