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28 August 2008

Military Photographers and the Propaganda Machine

No doubt many of you have seen the gripping photographs from military conflicts since there have been battle field photographers. They risk their own life and limb to bring the truth of war and the suffering that results to the world with their images. These are not the people that this essay covers. I want to explore the official photographers of the military and their role in the pro-war propaganda machine funded by you, the tax paying American citizen. Is the United States government waging a Winning of Hearts and Minds propaganda campaign at its own people permitting only sanitary images of the War in Iraq?

The first time the United States Government employed wide scale propaganda techniques to sway public opinion came during World War I. At public expense, the government produced posters which encouraged people to make personal sacrifice to free up more funds to support the war effort by such things as raising their own food in Victory Gardens. Since World War I, the U.S. government has increased its propaganda efforts to sell its agendas to the American people with campaigns such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The government’s World War II propaganda efforts included the Why We Fight series of films to justify involvement in the conflict. The Cold War was another opportunity for the government to hone it skills and expand domestic propaganda efforts. The Vietnam Conflict saw both pro-conflict and media censorship efforts.

Each year, the Military Authorization Bill, which is basically the funding document for United States military operations, has contained a prohibition against the use of domestic propaganda. The Smith-Mundt Act prohibits the Executive Branch from distributing propaganda domestically. After a long history of utilizing propaganda to influence public opinion, it should come as no surprise that the United States government has engaged in pro-war propaganda to support the quagmire that is the Iraq War. In a New York Times online article, an investigation into domestic propaganda has been launched:

The inspector general’s office at the Defense Department announced on Friday that it would investigate a Pentagon public affairs program that sought to transform retired military officers who work as television and radio analysts into “message force multipliers” who could be counted on to echo Bush administration talking points about Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and terrorism in general. The announcement came a day after the House passed an amendment to the annual military authorization bill that would mandate investigations of the program by both the inspector general’s office and Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office. The G.A.O. said it had already begun looking into the program and would give a legal opinion on whether it violated longstanding prohibitions against spending government money to spread propaganda to audiences in the United States (Source).

An unapologetic Representative Paul C. Broun (R-Georgia) admitted, “Of course Americans engage in propaganda. It’s a vital part of the mission of the United States to promote democracy and protect our country from harm.”

While I take note that the propaganda campaign to win hearts and minds was initially directed at gaining and maintaining the confidence of the Iraqi people in the months following the invasion of Iraq by the United States, I suggest that the campaign has been directed at the American people as well. The United States Army in particular has utilized its soldier photographers to produce images of a kinder, gentler Iraq war. Consider the image of a U.S. soldier apparently reading an English language book to Iraqi children. This image could not be more staged. First, I am curious about how many Iraqi children speak and read English; secondly, does this soldier really have the time out from fighting the ever present threat of insurgents to sit down and enjoy a book with Iraqi children? On a site called Royalty Free Department of Defense Military Stock Photography, anyone can buy Department of Defense photographs for $99.95 each. If you dare to venture into the government's web, you can go to the Department of Defense web site, and download the same photographs at no cost.

The internet has made dissemination of information incredibly easy and swift. I am concerned about the effect of the proliferation of web pages which contain sanitized Department of Defense photographs which paint a winning picture of the Iraq War. Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer and blogger was expelled from a U.S. military unit where he was embedded after he published photos of dead marines. While respect for those killed in combat, as well as sparing their families undue trauma should be taken into account, the censorship of the reality of war should not be sanitized or censored. Individuals can not be identified in Mr. Miller's photographs. According to the story in the New York Times Online, June 26, 2008:

But opponents of the war, civil liberties advocates and journalists argue that the public portrayal of the war is being sanitized and that Americans who choose to do so have the right to see — in whatever medium — the human cost of a war that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans.
How does Mr. Miller feel about his expulsion from the military unitt following publication of his photographs? “It is absolutely censorship,” Mr. Miller said. “I took pictures of something they didn’t like, and they removed me. Deciding what I can and cannot document, I don’t see a clearer definition of censorship.” New York Times Online, June 26, 2008. Well Mr. Miller, I can not see a clearer definition of censorship either.

Department of Defense Photographs

Soldier Distributing Food, U.S. Army photographer Sgt. Daniel T. West, posted for public viewing and purchase on Acclaim Image Stock Photography

Laughing Soldiers, Combat photojournalist Stacy Pearsall, posted for public viewing with interview on Popular Photography

Soldier Reading to Iraqi Children, Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, posted for public viewing on Personal Website

Further Reading & Photographs

Is the domestic propaganda ban obsolete?

The Reporters Free Committee

War Photographer

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