Reporting or Opportunism?

Sometime in December 1943, Navy photographer Charles Kerlee took this photo of a scene on Tarawa.

Tarawa, as you probably know, had just been captured in a bloody battle only a few weeks earlier.  There are many scholarly works I could cite to explain why some marine or marines decided to use an enemy skull in such a grim, macabre manner.  Doesn’t matter.  We, as a civilized society, consider it a transgression.  It’s taboo.  It’s wrong.  But it is a line that is sometimes crossed in war.

Kerlee’s photo went to the Navy’s files.  It was not released to the press.  Newspaper photographers captured many scenes like this during the war.  The photos emerged over the years from the files, but few were run in the newspapers during World War II.  Society – American society – just did not allow newspapers and magazines to run them.

For example, Life Magazine ran this photo in the May 22, 1944 issue (page 35 if you wish to browse the issue):

May 22, 1944 Life Magazine Picture of the Week...

The caption reads, “Arizona war worker writes her Navy boyfriend a thank-you note for the Jap skull he sent her.”  (And I think the expression on her face says a lot.)

I’ve not traced the definitive facts on the girlfriend and her Navy boyfriend.  Most secondary sources state he received some punishment, and of course the service issued statements explicitly condemning the action.  The public reaction to this photo was almost completely negative.  It is one thing to see depictions of the enemy’s wartime atrocities.  But it is another entirely to see atrocities acted out by one’s own.  After posting this photo, and a few others showing mutilations (such as a burned head on top of a knocked out Japanese tank), Life agreed to stop running such depictions. The editorial staff recognized the negative impact on the magazine’s, military’s, and nation’s reputation.  The magazine might, seizing the opportunity that grisly photos offer, sell a few more copies, but would loose in the long run.

Same country, same military, very similar situation….. different editorial staff:

Times Editor Davan Maharaj said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

Thus the Los Angeles Times justifies their editorial decision.

11 thoughts on “Reporting or Opportunism?”

  1. I sort of like the last bit of their justification, to be perfectly honest: “… including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.” It pairs particularly nicely with the images from WWII.

    1. So are there corresponding reports… sourced reports… of the breakdown of unit discipline? And do they, in good journalistic tradition, attempt to identify the reason for this alleged breakdown in unit discipline? Just seems like a lame, hollow justification to me.

      Personally the problem I have with the justification is the first part… you know where they reference a policy of impartiality.

  2. Most Journos are left-wing scum these days. There was no justification for what the LA Times did. Opportunism would be the most charitable way to express what they exhibited. A more accurate expression of what they are is scum and snakes, and that may be a bit on the charitable side as well.

  3. I’m sorry, what’s the big deal with any of these pics? If it were up to me I’d have these pictures printed up with an Arabic translation of Sherman’s letter to Atlanta on the back and drop them all over the Middle East. Anyone liable to be offended by these is already 80% of the way into the enemy camp.

    As for the breakdown discipline, that’s easily solved. Simply rescind any order against desecrating enemy dead.

  4. You talk of a time, World War II, when the American media did not despise our military or hate our country.

    Today, things are different. It is much, much more than sensationalism and opportunism. When I was in Iraq, I was asked many times to speak with “journalists” and media types. There were some good ones, Tony Perry of the LA Times, Pam Hess from UPI. But the vast majority were both incredibly biased and startlingly ignorant of what they reported on. They came to Iraq with an agenda and then looked around for “facts” to support it in print. On one notable occasion, the first question this chubby, pony-tailed young (25-ish) reporter asked me was “How does it feel to know you are participating in an illegal war?”. That is objective reporting? And it was all too typical. He was from the WSJ, by the way.

    By and large, the reporters I met were openly contemptuous of service members, and talked to us as if we were the dupes who really didn’t understand. They would get uncomfortable as hell when the tables were turned and it was clear how little they knew or how little the interest was in finding out. They routinely parroted al-Jazeera as if it were AP, without so much as a wink of curiosity as to real events.

    I remember watching General Mattis fillet some reporter when he asked about the so-called “wedding massacre” out in western AAP. Mattis essentially asked if he was really that stupid or naive. And asked the guy just who in Muslim society gets married on a Tuesday?

    Here is a prime example of the attitudes of the American media. And it is shameful.

    1. I agree with your general assessment of the media. Particularly after getting to know more than a few over the years. However I will say that the May 1944 photo from Life was indeed posted in such a way to push things a bit. Perhaps not overtly anti-military. But Life was certainly asking readers to consider the brutality of war and what impact that had on our nation. And you are right, they were not writing with an air of disdain towards the military at that time.

    2. Hopefully he will be waiting for Jane Fonda to join him. Ask the SOB if he would be “A Reporter first” if one of the American soldiers were his son.

  5. Perhaps because most of us had family doing the fighting, and wouldn’t tolerate their in the game..puts a whole different perspective on the most of us here know..

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