Watching the unwatchable

War is bad.

That thought is not original with me, of course.

The most famous, and horrible, image of the Vietnam war. (Photo: AP)

It is sometimes unavoidable, as is the current war being fought by Ukraine against an imperialist Russia led by a former KGB officer with fever dreams about Making Russia Great Again.

By claiming Ukraine, which he believes to be a traditional part of Russia.

Mexico could make the same claim about Texas and California. How would we react to Mexican troops crossing the Rio Grande?

Most rational people side with President Zelensky and the brave Ukrainian people who have a profound sense of their own identity, and their freedom, and their desire to be part of Democratic Western Europe.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I am of the “media,” so I want to look at the images of war.

But I often can’t, because some media outlets — mostly television — blur the images, after somber warnings about “what you see may be disturbing.”

They warn you about the images being disturbing, but then edit them so they are not.

Print allows itself to be more graphic, but not all print.

I am on the side of showing the truth, in all its ugliness.

I think of two images out of the Vietnam war.

One showed a South Vietnam soldier, as I remember, walking down a road holding by the hair the severed head of a Viet Cong soldier in each hand.

The editor of the Philadelphia Daily News ordered that to run on Page One and it was greeted with screams of outrage from many, many readers.

We were also chastised by other journalists. Too graphic, the said. Too real is what they meant.

The editor, Rolfe Neill, an otherwise contemptible, union-busting cur, wrote a personal letter to readers to defend his decision. He said, in effect, we are at war and this is what it looks like.

That photo was barely published elsewhere, while one showing a bare Vietnamese child, among others, running after a napalm attack, was published everywhere. 

It was the best-known image of the war, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Huynh Cong Ut, but not without controversy. 

Most newspapers ran the picture as you see it above, and there was a lot of criticism of showing the girl’s genitals. Editors were asked if they would have published such a picture of a white child. It was racist, many said.

As a person, I felt the shocking photo was a bit much.

As a journalist, I approved of it, as I did the picture of the severed heads, although I detested that it made “my side,” the South Vietnamese, look so bad.

So now we are in Ukraine and there are images that have been softened by smudges or pixilation so the horror can’t be fully seen.

(Photo: BSK)

It should be seen.

TV has more of a concern for its audience than print, because when the TV is on, children can be in the room, or aged Aunt Martha, who could take a stroke.

Newspapers are more discreet. You have to open them and look in. There’s less chance for accidental exposure to the too-young or too-sensitive.

The greater the truth, the better the story, or the photo.

(Photo: The Sun)

If the fallout results in an aversion to war — fine.

(Photo: The Telegraph)

If it results in a feeling that the West should do more to stop the Russian murderers — that’s fine, too.

Let the decisions be made on the facts, no matter how ugly.

12 thoughts on “Watching the unwatchable”

  1. Nothing more to say. I am in 100% agreement with you. War exemplifies the worst of what we humans are capable of and we deserve to look at it full on.

  2. I remember the photo of the killing of a Vietcong soldier by an officer of the South Vietnam army and years later; he owned a tea serving restaurant in California. I believe there is an agenda in just what is shown or written by newspapers who w You rarely see the stories of genocide in Africa or Muslim atrocities against non-believers. If one photo is worth a thousand words, then to be fully educated and a participant in our world, then our observation of just what war can cause to humanity must include the worst of all war photos.

    Ya did it again ! As a honest sincere member of the human race, albeit, a journalist, you have no limits when writing or speaking the truth. I’m privileged to know you.
    That girl in the first photo was severely burned by OUR napalm. She survived, became a U.S. citizen and hopefully leads a very happy productive life.
    And there it stops. The press chooses to either censor us or themselves. The pictures from any war are usually less than a quality photo. Starkly, reality, nothing held back ! That is what all should be made to see. My generation grew up watching John Wayne. In all of his glory, and wars, and uniforms, he was America’s hero. Fighting the fight, giving it all to the enemy and I think, going out in a blaze of glory. ( I call it, ‘the John Wayne syndrome )
    Well boys and girls. That ain’t the war that I knew. When a bomb goes off amongst people, it doesn’t matter what uniform – if any, they are wearing. They are usually blown to bits. That is the picture that everyone should see. Bodies splattered, limbs missing plus ‘collateral’ damage.
    The Twin Towers came down. We saw people jumping from those towers. We didn’t see them get splattered on the side walk. We didn’t see any remains coming out of the pile of debris as people searched for victims. Pieces of bodies were found. No bodies.
    Why am I saying all of this ? I believe that if we really knew the consequences of waging war, we would do everything possible to avoid that war. It doesn’t matter id it’s Oklahoma or some unknown village in far a way Africa. WAR IS HELL !

  4. My dad (RIP) told me he had no idea what war was all about — until he got to France and saw a dead German whose head had been run over by a tank.

    I remember pictures in LIFE Magazine that were really gruesome, such as a charred human body, half in and half out of a tank. A still photo doesn’t have the shock value of a video clip. Remember the execution of a Viet Cong, who was shot in the temple? I saw the still photo and the video, and the video was appalling, while the photo was merely sad.

    1. Vince, my dad, (RIP), did not like to talk about what he saw in WWII. I remember him telling me of some of the things he witnessed and while talking about it he got tears in his eyes.

      We can have our political disagreements along with other things but I think one thing was can agree on is war is hell. The wanton killing and destruction is horrible.

      Unfortunately war is also at times necessary and may be the only means of stopping evil.

      1. H,
        That’s more than reason enough why we shouldn’t be spared it’s visuals. And visuals is just one horror, another is smell. I’ve had a little experience with burned human flesh and it’s hard to shake. So we should remember the young soldier when we may be torned about engagement.

        1. Tom W, I agree with you 100%.

          From what I remember my dad (RIP) never mentioned the odor. He told me about seeing bodies and other things and that was enough for me.

          I know how I reacted when he told me about things he saw. I can only imagine how he felt seeing them first hand.

      2. Mr. Bogart, I agree 100%. BTW, my dad didn’t tell me about what he saw until he was in his 80s. He never commented on what he saw or was put through as a POW (of the Germans) until he commented in anger one night at the TV show ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ He said, to no one in particular — just an angry outburst — “There was nothing funny about being a prisoner of war!” Later, before he died, he dictated four hours of tape of his memories of what he went through at the Battle of the Bulge, his time as a POW, and trying to adjust when he came home. He dictated these thoughts to a Holocaust survivor he met by chance, who was a professor at a college in Florida. I have these memories (put on paper) and have passed them on to my sons. And as you say, there are times when war is necessary. I occasionally see a bumper sticker that reads WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER and I say each time, “Tell that to Adolf Hitler.”

        1. Vince, it appears you and I are among the many who have bittersweet memories of our fathers. While it was difficult to see him show the pain of the war it was great to have him around and be able to talk with him about many varied things.

          Have you thought about giving the tapes your father made to a museum?

          I loved your hitler remark. I will try to remember it.

    2. Vince, after re-reading your post I remembered that back in the mid 1950’s I had a hard-back book called Life’s Picture History of World War II. I checked on eBay and I was somewhat surprised to find it listed. After seeing it I remembered the red cover and the fact that it was oversized.The only picture I remember was a full page (I think) showing a dead soldier laying face down in the sand. It is amazing that after all of these years I can remember that one picture.

  5. still HAPPY SUNDAY !!!
    Well boys and girls,
    Here we are all agreeing that the ‘greatest generation’ went through hell so that we could screw up the country that we all love. My Dad was a SEABEE. Uncle Sam was nice enough to give him the South Pacific tour. Dad never talked about war. He would mention a few buddies now and then, but only in passing. When ever my uncles or other men got together and talked ‘war’, Dad would leave the room.
    It wasn’t until my father was injured on the job. To paraphrase Tom,” there’s nothing like the smell of burnt flesh.” Dad was burned over 78% of his torso. It was while he was in the St. Agnes burn center when Dad screamed about what was going through his mind. While in a induced coma, he would scream out what ever he saw. The attending nurses and staff thought that he was on drugs. I explained to them what he was going through. With that, they all had a different, kinder approach.
    I think and act and rationalize a lot different than most people. Given where I’ve been and what I saw, I think that most, if not all wars can be prevented. It doesn’t matter the reasons or the continents. A united world organization can squeeze a potential dictator into submission. Russia is a classic example. Puten and those before him, could be kept in check by cutting off supplies, purse strings, you name it. This would be done at the first thoughts of aggression. Trump, like him or not, told all of our enemies that if you mess with the United States, I’ll blow you all to hell.
    One thing for sure. The biggest losers are always the civilians. If they don’t die quickly, they starve to death. Their houses are blown to smithereens, and as mentioned before, they usually are missing limbs. Then there’s that age old custom. The conquering warriors are going to rape, pillage and destroy everything in site.

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