Image from Mt. Suribachi help win World War II

Susan Moeller:

"Correspondents have a job in war as essential as the military personnel," wrote Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in a memorandum drafted in the worrisome days before the Normandy invasion. "Fundamentally, public opinion wins wars." One of the greatest weapons in the World War II arsenal turned out to be a photograph -- the image taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag over Iwo Jima.

That image told of men, in the midst of cataclysm, together planting a symbol of America on contested ground. At a time when images of dead and wounded Americans were being published with regularity in the U.S. press, the photograph from Mount Suribachi celebrated a heroic moment on the front lines. It became the signature icon of the war, a photograph fortuitously taken, as Joe Rosenthal has often described it, and immediately seized upon by those leading the war effort back in the United States.

Countless publications duplicated the image. It was reproduced on a postage stamp, made into a statue, copied on untold numbers of commemorative items and turned into a Hollywood movie plot. Joe Rosenthal's photograph not only gave Americans back home an image of what was happening on the front lines, it persuasively argued that Americans were winning.

Rosenthal died last Sunday at the age of 94. When I interviewed him in the mid-1980s for a book I wrote on American war photography, he argued that he had no problem with his photograph being adopted as the icon of the war. What mattered, he said, is that the essential truth that his image captured had not been altered. World War II was the "good war." And Americans were the liberators.

Managing images to elicit a supportive public opinion in wartime was understood as essential long before the World War II -- it's simply the method of management that has changed. Napoleon III, during his mid-19th century reign in France, censored caricature more harshly than the written word -- in a time of low literacy, political cartoons were intelligible to all. Famed World War I photographer Jimmy Hare, who took pictures of the dead on the Italian front, wrote about being more stymied by the censors than were his reporter colleagues, and noted that "to so much as make a snapshot without official permission in writing means arrest."

In 1965 CBS correspondent Morley Safer enraged the military and the Johnson administration by showing footage of Marines burning thatched roofs of the village of Cam Ne with Zippo cigarette lighters. Although similar reports had been routinely documented in the print media, the visual effect of the television coverage so irritated President Lyndon Johnson that he is said to have awakened Frank Stanton, president of CBS News, with the demand "Are you trying to [expletive] me?"

...

The answer to Johnson's question is yes. That has been one of the biggest changes since World War II. The media is looking for images that make us want to lose wars.

The shot of a Vietnamese executing a communist moments after he was caught in an attack was a blantant example of how photographs lie. Not seen was the acts that preceeded and prompted the execution.

In Lebanon we learned that the photos were deliberately manipulated to creat propaganda for the Hezballah terrorist organization and the media became a willing accomplice in that manipulation. Some have even defended the dishonesty.

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