A friend of mine served two tours of duty in Iraq. When WikiLeaks released its Apache attack video one year ago, he expressed surprise at the attention it received. Before his second deployment, he had spent hours watching recordings of IEDs exploding in and around American military convoys. They had been freely posted online by insurgent groups in Iraq. During a visit, he showed me some of them, explaining the type and origin of the bombs being detonated, weapons which he would soon be the target of. For him, the violence of the war had long been available for viewing. What was missing was a desire among the general public to see it.
A few weeks ago, I watched Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary filmed and directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. (For nearly a year, I had made a point of avoiding it.) The film was often described as a-political in orientation, and indeed, it proceeds without commentary or narration, allowing those in the audience to draw their own conclusions from the images seen. That said, conclusions aren't hard to draw. Hetherington and Junger produced a simple document, one which, at its core, portrays a group of young men attempting to fight off madness on a mountaintop in the far eastern reaches of America's war in Afghanistan. Their transformations convey a much more complex picture of contemporary military service than the sanitized, stock language routinely used by elected officials who speak of "heroic" troops "performing brilliantly." In his second State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned our wars only in passing. "Look to Iraq," he said, "where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high." In 2010, 343 American service members had committed suicide, 69 more than the previous year. Obama's words were an obfuscation of the reality of these wars, of their consequences on those who fight them and those who attempt to survive in their midst. And they were certainly not applicable to the world shown through Restrepo's unblinking lens.
Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya yesterday. In response, the White House issued a statement:
We were saddened to learn of the death of film director and photographer Tim Hetherington while working in Misrata, and we are deeply concerned about the well being of other journalists who were wounded alongside him. Journalists across the globe risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders, and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard. The Libyan government and all governments across the world must take steps to protect journalists doing this vital work. The United States will work to do everything possible to assist those who were injured in getting the care they need. Our thoughts are with these brave journalists and their loved ones.
"Journalists across the globe risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders, and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard." It was the first time I had heard an administration official publicly mention Hetherington's name. Is the White House comfortable with the voices his work amplified, with the stories it told, with the accountability it demanded? More importantly, are we?