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 Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.