This week Secretary of War Robert Gates harassed the Associated Press and several local newspapers for printing a photograph of the broken body in Afghanistan of Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard from Maine. Bernard was 21. See David Sirota’s fine column this morning here.
In the great battle to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves – perhaps for all its horror, the greatest political act in American history and one of only two “good” or just wars (fighting the Nazis is the other), President Lincoln spoke noble words about the American experiment in liberty, of government of, for and by the people, of what it meant that this experiment should not perish from the earth and that young men died for this. What words might one say of our wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan?
Writing of Athens just before its decadence and self-destruction, Thucydides conjures the funeral oration of Pericles. There the elected leader celebrates the nobility of the democracy, the fact that citizens did not cast looks of censure on one another’s eccentricities or individuality so long as they came together for a common good. That they left their society open and did not fear. That they did not spend all their lives preparing for war but lived freely in contrast to their Spartan rivals. That the Athenian democracy was not a creation of others but rather served as a model to them. And that the Athenians who had lost sons should console themselves that they had risked and sacrificed all for what was glorious in Athens. In organizing murderous civil wars against aristocrats and oligarchs to extend its empire, Athens would soon betray itself – in its crazed murderousness in Corcyra - but the Bush marketing of whatever he meant by “democracy” is a caricature even of that. The young, our children who were asked to and did give their lives for democracy, our fellow citizens – is this not something to honor?
Sirota reports the internal struggle and the firm words of those who published this picture, at least to take in Joshua Bernard’s sacrifice:
“AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski said in the article, ‘…We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice.’”
“‘He said Bernard's death shows 'his sacrifice for his country. Our story and photos report on him and his last hours respectfully and in accordance with military regulations surrounding journalists embedded with U.S. forces.'...”
“The Honolulu Star Bulletin, a newspaper in Hawaii where Bernard's unit was based, did publish the photo as part of the AP's package in both its printed and online versions.”
“Another newspaper that chose to run the photo, The Intelligencer from Wheeling, W.Va., explained in an editorial that it had decided to run the photo after ‘hours of debate and, yes, searching of our own hearts.’”
“The editorial explained the photo's publication was not intended as "sensationalism" or with any disrespect to Bernard or his family, but that, ‘Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense. We believe it is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us.’"
What does it say of America that President Bush hid the corpses of these young men and women from sight? That Ted Koppel was denounced by the Right for reading the names of those who have died in Iraq on “Nightline”?
That the otherwise decent and intelligent Barack Obama, who dreams of Lincoln and whose election signified a continuation of the greatness and renewal of democracy that Lincoln embodied, continues this monstrous policy?
That Robert Gates cannot hear himself?