Once again, the pot has been stirred over press responsibility in wartime, after the Los Angeles Times published two 2010 photographs of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan posing with the bodies and body parts of slain enemy troops. They were printed despite a Pentagonrequest they not be published on the grounds that it might further jeopardize the safety of Americans still serving there.
The paper's editor, Davan Maharaj, after delaying the publication for 72 hours, went ahead, saying: "Our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions. We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan."
The paper acted prudently, printing only two of 18 such photos of the batch supplied by an unidentified soldier of the 82nd Airborne Division serving in Afghanistan at the time. The poses, though obviously abhorrent, were not as repulsive as many of those printed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2006 in Iraq.
However, taken together, they confirmed that, for all the official assurances that policing of such abuses by U.S. forces in the region would be tightened up, they have gone on. The two photos again pierced the naive view of some Americans at home that our troops, unlike others under the stress of war, are incapable of such conduct.
And so the photos will become more ammunition for the majority of Americans who tell pollsters that the war has been a decade-long mistake, and that the U.S. troops should come home, and the sooner the better. They add fuel also to the recent demand by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that President Obama accelerate his plan to withdraw all American combat forces by 2014.
Surprisingly, our ongoing commitment of American lives and treasure in the Middle East has remained only a minor issue in the presidential campaign at home. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney continues to criticize Mr. Obama for talking of a pullout from Afghanistan short of victory, as Mr. Obama clings to his schedule of gradual withdrawal while building up the indigenous forces to take over the task.
In all this, the question of press responsibility is periodically awakened by publication not only of embarrassing photos of U.S. troop behavior toward the enemy but also of stories of stalemate in the field that run counter to official U.S. reports of progress.
It has been thus ever since the American involvement in Vietnam, when an earlier generation of American reporters informed the people back home that all was not going well there. In 1967, when Gov. George Romney of Michigan, father of the present frontrunner for the GOP nomination, said he had been "brainwashed" by the U.S. generals there, he could also have been speaking for many Americans at home.
Nearly a decade ago, another brainwashing was administered byPresident George W. Bushwhen he insisted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then, too, the small segment of the American press who saw through the colossal subterfuge was condemned as being wrongheaded, and even unpatriotic, in trying to blow the whistle.
The cataclysmic diversion into Iraq, before we had completed the legitimate task of demolishing the9/11terrorists based in Afghanistan, remains the greatest scandal. That pivot was far worse than the occasional photographic evidence of American forces losing their moral compasses in the disorientation of brutal war.
So while that latest pictures of such deplorable behavior by American soldiers in a war zone are shocking, they provide a further reason for extricating the United States from the foreign involvements whose original objectives, worthy or otherwise, cannot be justified much longer.
Unfortunately, the fact that this country is in the midst of a presidential election campaign probably nullifies any prospect of any further material speedup by Obama in ending the American engagements. The most he can do now is to hope no more bad news turns up of the sort that the American press can't leave unreported, in its own obligations to the public.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.