Three Dead Americans: Life’s famous World War II photo

Photographs of fallen soldiers have always been a source of controversy for the news media.

It was thus during the Civil War, even before photographs could be mass produced. It was thus during the latest U.S. incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Life-WWII-photoAnd it certainly was during World War II when the American public went for nearly two years after Pearl Harbor without seeing a photo in the news media of a dead American serviceman.

That first photograph, “Three Dead Americans,” and the story behind it, is now on the Life magazine website. The photographer was George Strock, who covered the Battle of Buna-Gona in the South Pacific. The battle was a strategically important one, though few except World War II aficionados have ever heard of it. During the war, government censors banned pictures of dead soldiers. This photo, however, was different. It was technically superior and visually powerful.

According to the article on Life’s website:

For months after Strock made his now-iconic picture, LIFE’s editors pushed the American government’s military censors to allow the magazine to publish that one photograph. The concern, among some at LIFE and certainly many in the government, was that Americans were growing complacent about a war that was far from over and in which an Allied victory was far from certain. A 25-year-old LIFE correspondent in Washington named Cal Whipple refused to take no for an answer from the censors and — as he put it in a memoir written for his family years later — he “went from Army captain to major to colonel to general, until I wound up in the office of an assistant secretary of the Air Corps, who decided, ‘This has to go to the White House.’”

In the Sept. 20, 1943, issue of LIFE, in which Strock’s photo first appeared (and in which it was given a full page to itself), the magazine’s editors made the case to LIFE’s readers for publishing the picture — even if it took the better part of a year to bring the censors and President Franklin Roosevelt himself around to their way of thinking:

Here lie three Americans [the editorial began].

What shall we say of them? Shall we say that this is a noble sight? Shall we say that this is a fine thing, that they should give their lives for their country?

Or shall we say that this is too horrible to look at?

Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid?

Those are not the reasons.

The reason is that words are never enough. The eye sees. The mind knows. The heart feels. But the words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens. The words are never right. . . .

The reason we print it now is that, last week, President Roosevelt and [Director of the Office of War Information] Elmer Davis and the War Department decided that the American people ought to be able to see their own boys as they fall in battle; to come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead.

 

Showing dead soldiers has never been easy. To the right are two pictures from the Civil War. (Click on the pictures to see larger versions.) The first shows Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862; the second shows some of the dead after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

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Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862

All of these pictures are controversial, and doubtless the controversies will never be resolved. The issue provokes several lines of thinking that may be summarized as follows:

  • Picturing dead people in almost any context, but especially combat deaths, shows disrespect to the deceased, their families and their loved ones. This is an emotional argument that one either believes or does not believe. There is no way to prove its validity. Yet, because we are the kind of society we are, this line of thinking is raised early and often becomes the controlling aspect of decision-making about this issue.
  • Picturing combat deaths is unnecessary; people die in wars, and we don’t need to be reminded of that.
  • Photographs of combat deaths are shocking — so out of the ordinary that the viewing public will be repulsed by them. In the world of entertainment, we are used to “sanitized” deaths, no blood, gore or mess. Reality is not that way, and when we are reminded of that, we are shocked. The question for the journalists is, “Does the shocking part of the message get in the way of the message itself?”
  • Photographs of combat deaths will hurt the public’s morale and may reduce support for a nation’s war efforts. This is another argument whose validity can be argued. It seems to be the first line of reasoning for government censors. Yet, the story of the Life magazine photograph described above tells the opposite story altogether. Roosevelt and Davis allowed the photograph because they thought the public might be growing complacent, and support for the war might be ebbing. But these were all subjective judgments, not supported by any real evidence.

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    Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.

  • Journalists have the right and the responsibility to cover news, whatever it is and wherever it happens. This is a First Amendment argument that most journalists accept, and for them it becomes the controlling reasoning in this controversy. Government censorship — except to protect troops in action — is never a good idea. If the idea of freedom of information means anything at all, it should mean that we can report news of public interest and importance, even if it is shocking and offensive.
  • The public that supports and pays for a war has the right to see the effects of what they have supported. This is a rationalist and economic consideration that journalists use to back up and extend their First Amendment arguments. The public should want full reports and full information about what the government — for which they pay taxes — is up to. People who are asked to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their friends and loved ones should be fully information about the reasons and consequences of those requests.

Each of these positions has been argued vehemently by their adherents. There is certainly validity to all of them. The problem is that none of these positions is so obviously right that it overwhelms the other.

Thus, the controversy will always be with us.

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Below is a set of photos of soldiers killed in Civil War battles.

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The return of a serviceman killed in Iraq.

 

 

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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