Stan Hummel called my attention to this article: The War Photo No One Would Publish – The Atlantic. I didn’t embed the specific image here. If you want to see it, you can follow the link. Warning: it may not be something many people want to see.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
Jarecke took the picture just before a ceasefire officially ended Operation Desert Storm—the U.S.-led military action that drove Saddam Hussein and his troops out of Kuwait, which they had annexed and occupied the previous August. The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War. Instead, it went unpublished in the United States, not because of military obstruction but because of editorial choices.
I vaguely recall the controversy when the Observer published that photograph. Many outlets mentioned it, while not showing the picture. The ghost of Vietnam hung heavy in the air back then, and everyone was worried about going down the same road.
As the article points out, we live in a very different world today, without the editorial bottlenecks that existed back then. With the internet, a picture like this would definitely receive wide distribution today. And there would almost certainly be people saying that it shouldn’t.
The article talks about the fact that publishing these kinds of photos are controversial. But I think it’s important that they do get published and distributed. People should see what real war is like. Of course, many movies today, like Saving Private Ryan, are much more realistic than in the early 90s, so this isn’t as much of an issue as it once was.
Steven Pinker has pointed out that violence throughout humanity is decreasing. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but I suspect one of them is the dissemination of photos and other information about what war is actually like.