The death of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard wasn’t that different than the hundreds of other Americans killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war. Nor the thousands of Americans who have been killed in the Iraq war.
Bernard was wounded August 14 by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush by Taliban soldiers. He later died on an operating table as doctors tried to save him. He was 21 years old.
His name would have barely broken into the news cycle had it not been for a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson in the seconds after he was wounded showing his fellow Marines trying to rescue him.
And that photo has now stirred a controversy reaching the highest levels of the Pentagon after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked the Associated Press not to publish it.
But the A.P. stuck to their guns and distributed the photo to its clients anyway, allowing them to decide.
Most of the news organizations decided against running it. Even MSNBC decided not to run it before changing its mind.
However, MSNBC blacked the photo out, giving readers the opportunity to decide for themselves. Perhaps that was the best way to handle it. Kudos to them for running it.
Sometimes news is not pretty. Sometimes it is gruesome. Sometimes it is tragic. And sometimes it is shocking.
But it should always be true. It should always be honest. Even if its brutally honest.
While Bernard’s father wished that the photo would not run, believing it would demonstrate a lack of respect for his son, the opposite is true.
We can now stop for a moment in our busy lives to absorb the situation in Afghanistan. Whether you agree with the war or disagree with it, you cannot deny that Bernard paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Whether that sacrifice was to his country or to his government or to the corporations profiting from these wars, that will always be a point of debate.
But most of us will be able to empathize with Bernard and his family after viewing the photo, which is the only way to pay our respects.
However, the significance of that photo is far greater than this one death. It represents all the deaths in our two current wars, which total 5,130 as of today. It is not much different than the video that showed the slaying of Neda Soltani during the recent protests in Iran.
The photo gives us a taste of the wars that go beyond the usual press conference given by high-ranking military officials. It reveals a rare realism at a time when the Pentagon sets strict restrictions for journalists embedded with the military.
The Pentagon learned during the Vietnam War that an uncensored press is a powerful press. A press that is capable of changing public opinion. To them, an uncensored press is a dangerous press.
And that is the real reason why the Pentagon didn’t want this photo released.
So the real significance of this photo – and the fact that I am able to show it you tonight – is that Bernard truly did die defending our freedoms.
And maybe, just maybe, people can begin to understand why some of us choose to stubbornly cling to those freedoms.