In February of 2009, the Department of Defense reversed a long-standing policy of allowing the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers to be shown to the public. This new policy reverses the restriction put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and carried out by George W. Bush for soldiers killed in the War on Terror. Photography has had the power to change the course of wars here at home – for good and for bad. In the one hundred seventy year history of photography, images of war not only have captured our hearts, but they have also changed our minds.
The Mexican-American War saw the first images of soldiers being captured for posterity. Rather than battlefield scenes, the soldiers posed for portraits for their loved ones. But it would be Matthew Brady’s photographs in his gallery in New York City that began to show the impact that war would have on the public.
Had the linotype been mass-produced at the time, the magazines and national newspapers could have had an effect.
During the fight for the great plains, The Battle of Little Big Horn spurred the American public to put the Indians on the reservations. But it was the Massacre at Wounded Knee that caused the American public to recoil. The frozen images stunned the public in to calling off the Cavalry.
During World War I, president Wilson placed restrictions on what could and could not be said about the war in the press. Lincoln had done the same in the Civil War, but the images and reaction towards the US and the “merchants of death” would not be felt until after the war.
During World War II, it was actually an image that helped save a country and inspire the nation to finish up the task at hand. The second photograph taken at the raising of the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi would inspire not only these down below on the 8 square mile island, but those at home. The US army would actually send the flag raisers on a tour to help raise money for the nearly bankrupt country.
However, it was in Vietnam that the whole photography and freedom of the press corps set up the policy envisioned first by Reagan in Grenada and then George H.W. Bush in 1991. War photographers in Vietnam had total freedom to go wherever and whenever they wanted or needed to. All they needed was a ride. And if they couldn’t find a ride, chances were the combatants were going to be killing each other the next day.
About ten years ago the History Channel released a documentary called “The Camera at War” about the photographs and the photographers that helped changed the war. The documentary is my favorite of all time. I still show it to my students spread out over the course of two days. From a burning monk to Eddie Adam’s execution (below) to My Lai to Kent State, the Vietnam War was the first “in-your-face” war. My earliest memories are of sitting around the dinner table and watching the images filter into the living room.
As a result of these images, and many more, the government would end its relationship, and funding, of the South Vietnamese regime. As the images on the news combined with images in Life Magazine slowly filtered to the American public over time, so did the support for Johnson and the military in this country.
When the 1980s and Reagan’s military excursion against Grenada came to be, the press was not even involved. In Grenada, as in Operation Desert Storm, the Defense Department strictly controlled the flow of information and images. It was only after Desert Storm ‘s ground war ended did the carnage become clear. Up until then, the only images seen were of laser guided weaponry. The images most Americans remember are actually the sight of Schwarzkopf and his amazing press conferences and smart weapons.
September 11 reminded Americans how Democracy and the press worked. Some of the images of the day were not only staggering but also acted as inspiration for a generation of Americans.
However, when it came to go into Iraq, the press was embedded with a specific unit. The images that flooded into the living rooms of the 1960s did not come as quickly in the spring of 2003. However, striking images did come and they would change the course of the war.
Initially, the falling statue of Saddam and the shoe beating it took struck a chord with many Americans. When President Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier that summer, it was a banner behind him that prematurely signalled the end of the war and also began the long insurgency which would last almost five years.
The most famous images from Iraq actually do not come from the press but they would have a huge impact. The pictures taken by soldiers at Abu Ghraib would do more to keep the anti-war movement going just as Eddie Adams “The Execution” did in the 1960s.
When it is all said and done, the images can sway public opinion either way. The images last long after the war and remain a record of the war. Along with letters of soldiers, they are just a valuable record of the events and more valuable than the government record. However, when the next war comes, even in Afghanistan, the battle will be fought again between the press and the government for the hearts and minds of Americans.