Killing Them Softly

The total obliteration of the war by information, propaganda, commentaries, with cameramen in the first tanks and war reporters dying heroic deaths, the mishmash of an enlightened manipulation of public opinion and oblivious activity; all this is another expression for the withering of experience, the vacuum between men and their fate, in which their real fate lies. It is as if the reified, hardened plaster-cast of events takes the place of events themselves. Men are reduced to walk on parts in a monster documentary film.

Theodore Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, Verso Books, 1978:55

In 2007, World Press Photo (WPP)–considered the world’s most prestigious award for photojournalism contest–gave its annual award to the British photographer Tim Hetherington for his photograph of an exhausted US soldier somewhere on duty in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Gary Knight, Chairman of WPP, explained that the image “shows the exhaustion of a man–and the exhaustion of a nation.” [BBC News, Picture Power, February 14, 2008, last accessed on March 23, 2020, here:]. Knight’s was a bizarre claim, given that in 2007, the US’s desire for war was not on the wane. US political and military rhetoric remained belligerent, and the US military budget increased. It was also an unconscionable one, given that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans were dead, hundreds of thousands made into refugees, and two nations–their political, civil, legal, economic, and public infrastructures in ruins–were under US military occupation.

Hetherington’s long-time collaborator, journalist Sebastian Junger, spoke further about Tim Hetherington’s image; “What he [Hetherington] said to me was, ‘Look, this is how their mothers see them, they don’t have their gear on, they’re like these little boys, and you never get to see soldiers the way their mothers see them. And here they are asleep, innocent, unguarded’” [“Tim Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers,” Magnum Photos, online: (last accessed November 2023)]. Junger added, “I think it’s very easy to lionize soldiers, and I think it’s very easy to demonize them, and it’s very easy to use them as a symbol of something or representative of something that you either really like or really don’t like. But what gets lost in all of that is the individuals. Seeing them in their most unguarded moments, when they’re asleep, I think what it does for both pro–and anti-war people is it humanizes the individuals involved.” [Ibid.].

The US military could not have hoped for a better laundering of its invasions and military occupations into “feel good” narratives. Under the gaze of Junger’s and Hetherington’s cameras, the madness and brutality of US wars became a visual lullaby of innocence, transforming marauding, killing, and torturing soldiers into “little boys” as their mothers would see them. For Junger, the suffering of the other, the deaths, displacements, torture, maiming, and tearing apart of families and lives become little more than a consumer choice, something we can “either really like or really don’t like.” [Ibid.] But this claim is disingenuous. The intentions of the photographer were always clear.

In a talk at The Frontline Club in London, Tim Hetherington unapologetically speaks about the close relationships he developed with the American soldiers he was embedded with and how he could show the “emotional life” of soldiers without. No one challenged his premise at this elite club that regularly attracts journalists, editors, and others to its events. That Hetheterington was never questioned on the bias and unethical allegiance and reliance on one of the principal protagonists in an illegal invasion and occupation said a lot about where journalism, nationalism, and Western righteous liberalism had arrived. In the talk, he explains his extended embed with American soldiers, how he “lived very closely to the soldiers,” how he managed to get “inside their emotional life in ways that are not often seen,” and why this was the value of his embed experience; the emotional, intimate humanization of fighting American soldiers. [USC Annenberg Video, “Behind the Lens discussion with the winners of World Press Photo,” April 24, 2009, accessed here: (last accessed December 2023)].

But was this journalism? Could an independent photojournalist, working with writer Sebastian Junger, speaking overtly about his interest in intimately connecting with American soldiers conducting military operations as part of an illegal war and equally illegal military occupation, be considered as carrying out journalism?

In a separate interview, Tim outlined his intentions with his work with the Americans in Afghanistan, stating that the work he is producing is “about this relationship with the soldiers” and that his goal is to “show a much more complex, emotional, intimate picture of these guys, that is where the work is leading.” Hetherington does not shy away from admitting that he wants “to be close to them” while acknowledging the ethical question of “how do you embed with somebody, get very close to them, and retain the humanistic attitude towards those they are trying to kill?” Hetherington, however, dismisses this contradiction as an “ethical minefield” and leaves it at that. [World Press Photo Association Video, “Tim Hetherington on his Winning Photo,” 2007, online here: (last access December 2023)].

But it is only an ethical minefield because he is close to placing himself in it. He chose to embed with one of the belligerents in the conflict. This close, emotional, intimate view was precisely what the framers and designers of the US military embed program were hoping for.

He wasn’t alone. Most American media and popular cultural gatekeepers saw things the same way. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s “documentary” film “Restrepo”–produced while embedded with US forces–was nominated for an Oscar and won a News & Documentary Emmy Award, a Sundance Film Festival Award, and a Television Critics Association Award and was nominated for many others.

The carefully managed televisual experience of America’s wars led Jean Baudrillard to argue that the divide between reality and simulation was so blurred that we could not even tell if the 1991 Gulf War had occurred. [Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Indiana University Press, 1995]. What we were seeing, Baudrillard argued, was not a war but a virtual event that was less a representation of the actual conflict and more a televised, digitized, edited, curated, media-packaged spectacle that served a particular state political and strategic agenda. The real war and the actual events on the ground lost all meaning when transformed into digital information and media packaging. It distanced journalists from experience and the need for it.

Equally, it alienated them from professional practices once considered necessary, i.e., distrusting authoritative claims, maintaining distance from power, and adhering to a skepticism that encouraged questioning, investigating, researching, verifying, and cross-checking details. Mainstream media became a cheerleader for war and has remained so. [Moustafa Bayoumi, “Even after Iraq, too many US elites still think war is a bloodless chess game,” The Guardian, January 6, 2020].

The war that they sold us was not the war but an experience that closely resembled entertainment.