Death of a marine

Associated Press and the ethics of war photography

The Associated Press has triggered a furious debate in the US by publishing a photo of a marine moments before his death. The furore over the photo of the 21-year-old marine, Joshua Bernard, who died after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, reminds us that depicting military deaths remains taboo in many parts of the US.

It was only this year that the Pentagon finally allowed the US media to photograph military caskets, reversing a ban introduced by President Bush at the time of the Gulf War.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, is said to have "begged" the news agency to withhold the image and has accused AP of showing a "lack of compassion" to Bernard's family.

In a fiercely worded letter to the AP president, Tom Curley, he said:

Why your organisation would purposefully defy the family's wishes, knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish, is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling.

AP has countered Gates's charges here, with Santiago Lyon, its director of photography, arguing: "AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."

In this instance, my sympathies lie with AP and the photographer, Julie Jacobson. There is no evidence that the agency is exploiting the image in the manner of a grubby tabloid and the US political and military Establishment has long taken a self-interested approach to the use of graphic battlefield images.

Gates would do well to remember the grief and anguish that photographers can experience in such situations.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the case of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer whose most famous image showed an emaciated Sudanese child stalked by a vulture. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo but was haunted by claims that he should have intervened to help the girl earlier than he did (one journalist remarked that Carter "might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene"). His grief led him to take his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning a few months later.

Carter, who was also a member of the famed Bang-Bang Club and the first person to photograph a public execution by "necklacing'" in South Africa, once described the dilemma faced by photojournalists:

I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man's face is slightly grey. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, "My God." But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game.

It is a dilemma that Gates and other critics should reflect on.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.