Monday, April 06, 2015

“You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France”

Mary L. Dudziak

The line in my title appeared in a note found in the pocket of journalist Ernie Pyle when he was killed by a sniper in Okinawa on April 18, 1945.  There was more that Americans would not see, including Pyle’s own body, neatly arranged and straightened, with folded hands. A photo quickly taken of Pyle was censored out of concern that it would hamper morale, since Pyle’s work was so closely followed and he was so popular.

A post about Pyle, with the arresting quote, by Mark Stout was on War on the Rocks this morning, as I was on my way to Rutgers to discuss, in part, the censorship of war photographs this Tuesday. Censorship of even this peaceful image of a dead journalist is one part of the broader story about the distance of most Americans from the cost and consequences of war, even when it comes to still images, and even in the context of the massive mobilization of World War II.

Americans did not see the crumpled body in France, and did not see Pyle’s own body, because of a government policy to, in essence, curate the photographic record of the war to calibrate the emotional response of Americans to war. Initially bad news was suppressed, but by 1943, out of concern that Americans needed to rededicate themselves to the war effort, photo censorship was eased so that images of dead American soldiers could now be shown. But they were bloodless bodies, like this famous photograph, the first photo of dead WWII U.S. soldiers to appear in Life magazine. It was not until May 1945 that, as George Roeder put it, blood was spilled on the pages of Life for the first time, in this image.

I’ve argued in the past that the most important presidential war power is the power to narrate a context as a war, thereby enabling the popular mobilization for war that supports presidential war power. Censorship, or the curating of a pictoral record of war, increasing or decreasing the violence in the images, was used to maintain that mobilization. Censorship is a feature of all wars. In a distant war, without access to the site of battle or the dead themselves, the very sights (and sounds) of World War II were produced by the government for the homefront through both propaganda and censorship. In this way, power over culture helped maintain support for presidential power, not only for overseas deployments, but for the ongoing management of most Americans’ isolation from what war could really look like.

More of Ernie Pyle’s note is in Stout's post, here.

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