The pictures and video are almost too excruciating to look at.

But the true face of war has finally revealed itself in the agonizing photographs of young American casualties and prisoners of war, images that the American public was initially not allowed to see. Before that, war for the American reading and viewing audience was a series of glittering and antiseptic bomb bursts at night and tanks speeding triumphantly across the desert.

As a mother, I can't imagine the torture of seeing a young son or daughter being interrogated by thugs, watching their eyes dart nervously, their hands shackled, their wounds poorly bound. But this is what war always comes down to: Young soldiers as cannon fodder for the battle maw.

Notice it's not the swaggering Donald Rumsfeld, who brazenly led this country to believe this battle would be a slam-dunk, who now sits sweating before Iraqi video cameras; it's not the podium-bound generals, chests heavy with medals, being asked pointedly why they're in Iraq. It's not Bush or his photogenic daughters getting grilled, not the loathsome Richard Perle, who has so blithely suggested Iraq is just the first of many Middle East conquests.

It's the same story since the era of kings and emperors: Leaders utter the battle cry, grunts pay for it with their blood. There has been much controversy over whether Americans should be able to see pictures of the POWs or servicemen casualties and the growing tide of Iraqi dead, including women and children. And this is where the government has showed its cards regarding its newly cozy relationship with the American media. Citing a Geneva Convention clause forbidding the humiliation of prisoners of war - even as it has refrained from decrying images of surrendering Iraqi soldiers or hooded and shackled Afghanistan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - the Pentagon has revealed a paternal streak that seeks to censor and sanitize the action in Iraq to its own advantage.

Frankly, I worried this would be the case from the beginning, when I first heard journalists would accompany troops into Iraq. One basic rule of reporting is you don't fraternize with those you cover, much less depend on them for safety, food and, indeed, your very survival. At the same time, as a member of the news media I totally understand the rationale for accepting the Pentagon's paradigm. How else to obtain front-line reports on the conflict? How else to avoid the information shutouts of previous wars? I hold the utmost respect for the brave men and women who risk their lives to cover this war.

But we must also acknowledge the dynamic that happens when one's source of information also becomes one's lifeline. We must consider what other, less noble motivations might prompt the Bush administration to offer such access, including a cravenly political public relations agenda. The latter came clear when the Pentagon sought to put a damper on less-than-triumphant images as things turned ugly last week.

Stunningly, the Bush administration has sought justification for censorship in an international agreement - this from a group that has shunned global agreements and opinions almost as a matter of course. I understand the moral reasoning behind the Geneva Conventions - surely some images could be modified to spare families pain - but I reject the rationale that Americans are children who must be spoon-fed sugarcoated images of war. It's dishonest, it's unpatriotic and it poorly prepares us for the pain to come. E-mail: mstoeltje@express-news.net

© 2003 New York Times News Service

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