The recent decision by the L.A. Times to publish the photographs of American soldiers posing with Talib body parts re-ignited the firestorm raised by the Marine urination photographs: Is the American media anti-military and putting our troops at risk; were the newspapers standing up to Pentagon pressure and to be commended for demonstrating the value of a free press; or are these acts excusable due to the stress the Marines and soldiers are experiencing?
This isn't just an academic debate. As a combat journalist with 14 Marine embeds, my journalistic integrity has twice been probed when I speak in front of various colleges and graduate schools; it's not easy to be a cynical journalist when living with young men who will haul me out of a firefight. My answer was, "I don't have to be impartial -- I have to be accurate," so let me suggest that the current controversy over these photos misses the point.
It's worth remembering that in every case the photographs were taken by the Marines and soldiers themselves and emailed to others. No "liberal media" appeared uninvited and secretly snapped pictures; in every case the troops were smiling and grinning to the camera.
But in today's highly politicized world the newspapers can't win: If they publish, they're called anti-American defeatists, yet if they don't publish they're complicit in a cover-up and tools of the Pentagon. But since bad news always seems to surface, I'd suggest that decision to publish the photos was the correct one.
More worrying is: Where were the officers and senior enlisted when these photos were taken? Pissing on dead bodies, waving body parts -- why did no one step forward and say, "stop, this is wrong"?
That's an easy value judgment from the safety of 10,000 miles away, yet not so easy after one's friends have been killed or you've seen children maimed. With so few Americans serving in the military, those few who do are serving multiple combat tours. The result of their dedication is a stress level misunderstood by the average American who responds to these incidents with a naivety about combat that is appalling in its sanctimonious ignorance. The American people were never mobilized to fight these wars; today's active duty Marine and Army consists of well below 1 percent of America's population, yet they are judged by those who have never helped stop the bleeding of a buddy with a leg blown off or helped pick a friend's body parts out of a blown-up humvee. It's grossly unfair for the ill-informed to denounce these few young Americans who volunteered to fight.
But their ignorance doesn't change what's right or wrong; as a civilized country we're better than that, and perhaps that's where my views on impartiality and accuracy come into play: I think the proper response would be neither to excuse or hide these photographs, but to also write about the context in which they were taken.
And as an integral part of my article I'd surely want to question those officers and senior enlisted who didn't say "stop."
Andrew Lubin is a regular blog contributor for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation, and embed journalist for Leatherneck Magazine. You can find more of his blogs here or on Leatherneck Magazine.