Imaging the fallen: What the pictures of the war dead should tell us


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Trumbull's “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” (1786)

Essay: We’ve seen photos before like ones of U.S. soldiers with Afghan corpses

“The impulse of soldiers to photograph their dead enemies is driven by a number of factors, says Nancy Sherman, author of “The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers” and a professor of philosophy at Georgetown specializing in the ethics of war.

“There’s relief that they’re alive and not dead. There’s also top-dog exuberance and pent-up revenge,” she says. Another factor, especially in places such as Afghanistan, is when these incidents take place among units that are operating in remote locations, she says.”

Many have expressed outrage toward the U.S. troops that photographed the dead insurgents in Afghanistan. Heim’s article is a good reminder that this act is not new to war. In fact it is a mainstay of war. I certainly do do not like seeing the dead corpses and I am sure the families would not (and should not) like to see their beloved photographed like a trophy from a hunting trip. However it might be profitable for us to see these images and more.

The U.S. has carefully managed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, shielding the American public from disturbing images that characterize the reality of war. For example, the first seven years of the war, Americans saw no soldier’s coffins carried off of airplanes. Finally in 2009, the ban was lifted, but still we know little about the grind our soldiers daily endure.

Images remind us of a price paid, on both sides of war. If anything, it illustrates that there is a cost to decisions that are made in palaces, oval offices, and caves. Those costs are many times calculated in human life. We have forgotten, that people that were our neighbors, postmen, hedgetrimmer, server, and auto mechanic are now fighting a war. Everyday they are fighting for the opportunity to return home to resume a “normal life” (as if life will ever be the same). These pictures remind us of the cost. These pictures remind us that in a democratic republic, we the people, to some measure are responsible for a soldier’s presence on foreign soil. These images remind us that this is part of the cost of our action or inaction.

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