AFGHANISTAN AND LOS ANGELES: Pictures at a Most Gruesome Exhibition

The U.S. news media often has to make publish-or-not-publish decisions under immense time pressure. And sometimes these decisions are not easy ones, especially for our most responsible media (Los Angeles Times top editor Davan Maharaj pictured above left). Take the case of disturbing photographs of U.S. soldiers posing all too triumphantly with the body parts of Afghan insurgents, presumably Muslim, killed in a 2010 operation.  A pair of those photos has now come to global light due to a wrenching publishing decision by editorial management of  The Los Angeles Times here in Los Angeles.

Its media decision has touched off not only an American debate about the deteriorating conduct level and psychological condition of U.S. soldiers in this seemingly endless (and increasingly pointless, in our view) war; but it has raised anew questions about the responsibility of the media.  These are all good and pertinent questions that deserve to be addressed in a robust democracy.

The Media Decision:  On balance (but it is a delicate and frightful one) the L.A. Times was right to publish. The decision came in the wake of prior revelations, including Koran burnings and the massacre of a village by an American soldiers, presumably gone berserk. Clearly, top Times editor Maharaj understood that publication would go viral and understood (with great remorse) that potentially such publication would expose U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to retaliatory attacks. So when the Pentagon reiterated those concerns, the editor voluntarily agreed to delay publication until the troops had been put on heightened security alert. And, according to the L.A. Times correspondent who obtained the 16 photos from a U.S army solder, the two that were published were “the least gruesome.”

The Policy Implication: By putting a fraction of the images available on its front page, The Times fulfilled its obligation to the public to print the true story, to the extent responsibly possible. And in the process it raised anew, in a way which sometimes only images can, the possible moral deterioration of the American war effort in Afghanistan beyond repair. Raising difficult and even embarrassing questions is one of the clear benefits of a vigorous media within a democracy.

The Larger War Issue:  Given the American war experience in Iraq and Vietnam as well as Afghanistan (not to mention Somalia), it is perhaps not too much to doubt whether intense asymmetrical insurgent-type wars play to our strengths. Certainly none of those outcomes remotely matched the incomparable all-out World War Two efforts. Learning about ones’s limitations as well as one’s capabilities can help one travel the long and sometimes bumpy road toward maturity. To its credit, The L.A. Times decision may have moved us further down that road.

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