When should words give way to silence?

Published 9:58 am Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Aug. 14 a young Marine Lance Corporal, Joshua Bernard, was struck by a Taliban-fired RPG during an ambush while on patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

This American hero suffered severe leg wounds and eventually succumbed to his injuries on a field hospital operating table.

According to friends, Bernard was a young man whose strong faith guided him on a path of service — eventually leading to his enlistment in the Marine Corps. His passing is a tremendous blow to his family and friends — and to an eternally grateful nation.

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Similar stories of sacrifice and loss have been playing out across our nation as our young men and women continue to serve in harm’s way. What makes this story even more tragic is a decision by the Associated Press that crosses the bounds of decency.

You see, the Associated Press has reporters and photographers embedded with the Marines as they conduct combat operations. AP photographer Julie Jacobson, an embed in Afghanistan during the ambush, captured images of Bernard as he lay mortally wounded. Sensing opportunity, the Associated Press team put together a narrative entitled “AP Impact — Afghan — Death of a Marine” also using the work of journalist Alfred de Montesquiou along with cameraman Ken Teh, in which they inexplicably included the image of the slain, young Marine.

Even after appeals from the family and Defense Secretary Gates, the AP went forward with its publication over their objections on the grounds that it conveyed “the grimness of war.”

While I applaud many in the press who jeopardize their own safety at risk to cover our men and women in battle, the actions of the Associated Press here also jeopardize the already fragile relationships Americans have with members of the press.

Unbiased reporting from the battlefield is crucial to relaying the truths of war back to all of us at home. But incidents such as this, where the media puts its own agenda (be it personal, professional or political) ahead of the respectful treatment each of us would expect if this was a member of our family, are why so many of us are skeptical of what is reported in newspapers, online and on television.

This young Marine, his family and friends deserved better. They deserved to remember their son, their friend, their fellow-Marine, as he lived rather than through the lens of a media team more interested in furtherance of their own aims than of common decency.

Now the man has been forgotten for the news story. And the terrorist enemies who caused this casualty should not have their works widely distributed internationally — surely to be used as propaganda.

Many news organizations understood this, and, in respect and compassion, chose not to run the photograph. I am thankful for their sense and restraint. Nevertheless, this is a test which more than 20 news outlets failed.

The grimness of war is something we all need to be consistently reminded of — teaching us about the sacrifices of the few who, on our behalf, defend our freedoms as we go about our daily lives.

These stories, and the courageous individuals behind them, must never be forgotten, nor should the horrors they endure be lightly pushed aside.

In this instance, however, the worldwide distribution of an image of an American hero as he passes to his Creator is something far too graphic and, moreover, intrusive to pass the test of responsible journalism — and that of responsible human behavior.

Mike Reagan is the elder son of the late President Ronald Reagan. E-mail comments to Reagan@caglecartoons.com.