The Power Joe Rosenthal Knew
By Susan D. Moeller for the Washington Post
Saturday, August 26, 2006; Page A21
"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?"
In June 1986 the South African government tightened existing press restrictions with new guidelines cannily calculated to frustrate photographic coverage of disturbances throughout the country. Although reporters could still write about the violence in the townships and elsewhere, the apartheid story disappeared from the air when the only images available became file footage.
President George H.W. Bush's method for controlling and retaining public support during the Persian Gulf War was to put a moratorium on journalists filing from the front lines and to filter the theater's information through official news conferences. Only a handful of "combat" images ever made it past the censors. Since then the spinning of images has continued to accelerate. The climactic event of the taking of Baghdad in April 2003, the bringing down of the Saddam Hussein statue, turned out to be an elaborate photo op. So too did the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Images are powerful indicators of victory and defeat. The war on terrorism and the shooting wars in Iraq and Lebanon are increasingly being played out through images in print, on television and online. Blogs post photos of an angry President Bush and juxtapose them with those of a smiling Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. Cable news programs show pictures of bleeding civilians in the streets of Iraq, which reverberate ominously after video images of British police patrolling Heathrow airport.
It's tempting to think that it's only in our brave new age of digital cameras and video phones, of 24-hour news channels and satellite uplinks, that images have mattered as much as they do -- that because we can see more images from literally anywhere in real time, images somehow have gained in power relative to the humble word. It's not true.
What is true is that images are no longer appropriated only after they are taken; they have become an intrinsic part of military strategy. One indication? In last month's fight with Israel, Nasrallah coordinated the timing of Hezbollah's missile attack on an Israeli warship with his on-air speech to the Lebanese public announcing the attack. Maybe it is a brave new world after all.
The writer is director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland at College Park and the author of "Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat."