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July 17, 2008

Just Doing Their Job

Ptsdheartdisease I can imagine that writing this column had to be a difficult task for Warren Zinn. And it must have been jarring when he received an e-mail recently that read, "the soldier you made famous—killed himself last Saturday—thought you should know."

Now, this photojournalist is wondering if his famous photo of Army medic Joseph Dwyer contributed to Dwyer's mental demise and eventual death when he came home. “You never truly leave the battlefield behind,” writes Zinn.

Joseph Dwyer was dead of a substance overdose at 31. I'd read news reports that he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought he was being hunted by Iraqi killers. He'd been in and out of treatment. He couldn't, his mother told the media, "get over the war."

But as I stared at his image on my wall, I couldn't dodge the question: Did this photo have anything to do with his death? News reports said he hated the celebrity that came with the picture. How much, I wondered, did that moment—just 1/250th of a second when three lives intersected on a river bank in Iraq—contribute to the burdens he'd brought home with him? If I'd never taken his picture, would he have ended up as he did? Would he still have been a casualty of war?

In the beginning of the war in Iraq, there was controversy about embedded journalists and the 24-7 news coverage of the war, making it look like a “quagmire,” to resurrect an overused term at the time, however accurate or inaccurate.

Zinn, though, by his description, wasn’t looking to shed a negative light on the war. Quite the opposite.

As the man ran toward me, I fired away with my camera, sensing that something special was developing before me. A medic suddenly appeared to my right and ran to the Iraqi man, who handed the injured child to the American soldier. The soldier was Dwyer. As both turned to run, Dwyer to the aid station and the man back to the village, I kept shooting, thinking, "I hope this is in focus, I hope the exposure is right, God, Warren, don't mess this one up." I knew this was a moment that the world needed to see—a moment of American heroism, of American commitment to saving a people and to saving lives.

But portraying heroism can have its setbacks too. (And no, I don’t write that to say Zinn’s at fault for Dwyer’s death.) It’s just that having that image and expectation thrust upon a soldier could place incredible pressure on his psyche as he seeks to meet that expectation. And for Dwyer, always wondering what happened to the boy in the photo, and remembering that he wasn’t the only soldier who performed acts of “heroism,” may have compounded the pressure he may have felt.

As I understand it, soldiers are not looking to be heroes. They just want to do their job, and do it well—and, frankly, get some practical experience to use in a great civilian job when they finish their stint. “U.S. soldiers perform courageous deeds daily, deeds that go undocumented—and unrecognized,” writes Zinn. “The difference between Joseph's act and theirs is that I just happened to be in front of him with a camera when he did his job. If a camera could follow U.S. soldiers in action around the clock, newspapers would be flooded with images of their valiant actions.”

Being held up as a public hero could prevent one from “coming down” from the war and going on to a “normal” life. We will never know whether anything could have prevented Dwyer’s demise. I somehow doubt it, considering the false scenarios playing in his mind as if they were real. But he did love the photograph, actually, according to his mother. “He just felt somewhat embarrassed at being singled out because so many other soldiers were doing exactly what he'd done,” Zinn says that Dwyer’s mom relayed.

And Zinn was just doing his job too. "I truly believe you played an important role in this war," Dwyer wrote to Zinn in 2004. "You told everyone's story."

“I'm a little embarrassed when people call the photo iconic or compare it with other famous photos,” Zinn writes. “I was a photojournalist doing my job, just like hundreds of others in Iraq. There were countless pictures produced during the invasion that were better composed, better exposed and more compelling.”

Zinn had wanted to capture that photo as a symbol of hope “that soldiers such as Joseph cared more about human life than anything else.” But now, he observes, the photo is a reminder “that so many soldiers are physically torn and in such mental anguish that for some of them, hope has turned to hopelessness.”

What do we conclude from all this? “[T]here are also numerous soldiers who are suffering, unnoticed, from the wounds of this war, both mental and physical,” notes Zinn. “Had I never captured that image of Joseph, it's likely that very few people would have paid any attention to this one soldier's death.”

Zinn may not realize it, but this could actually be a good thing. A lot of real good could now come out of that photo. Now, when the public looks at it, they see a soldier who was killed in the war he brought home. And perhaps, maybe that will now force the issue in Congress, the military, and its hospitals, and whoever else necessary to take real action to help soldiers facing post-traumatic stress disorder. Because too many are losing their well-being and even their lives from the after-effects of just doing their jobs.

(Image © NYU)

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Mike Perry

The article itself noted that the man's mother had called to tell this photographer that the news reports were inaccurate, that Dwyer had been quite proud of being in that picture. He merely felt uncomfortable being singled out when others had done more.

Keep in mind that good writers often give a story an initial emotional spin just to draw readers in. Don't take that spin for the story. Read an article carefully and to the end before settling on what its meaning is.

For instance, I spin the back cover copy on my latest book, Chesterton on War and Peace, to stress that a prominent pacifist, Norman Angell, who played a major role in creating the climate of appeasement that made WWII so horrible, won the 1933 Noble Peace Prize, while Chesterton, who had been warning the world of the danger Germany posed to European peace, won no such prize.

One reviewer, reading that, thought my book was a belated bid to get Chesterton the Noble Peace Prize. It is no such thing. The Nobel Peace Prize was simply a way to put the book in context, to give a modern spin to a story about long-ago debates in a war so distant, the last survivors of the fighting are almost gone. What Chesterton was saying then is very relevant to today, to the Middle East, and to our clash with Islamic terrorism. But getting modern readers to see the value of anything that isn't the latest celebrity misbehavior is a difficult task. The Noble Peace prize is something they understand. It has celebrities and it happens each year.

If anything those remarks were a dig at a Noble Prize Committee that (then and now) wastes its prestige on undeserving individuals and causes. Chesterton's ideas on peace and war are so practical, they make marvelous reading today. Angell was so clueless and so bent of exploiting the currently fashionable to make himself a celebrity, that reading much of what he wrote is painfully embarrassing today, particularly his claim that Germany, even under Nazism, posted no threat to the peace of Europe. If you want to understand the folly that is modern pacifism, you do well to read Chesterton, who saw its beginnings in London just before WWI.


Um, Michael, thanks for the clearly unnecessary advice, but I did read the full article, carefully, twice actually. And regarding intent, and spin, etc., as an editor, yes, I know to look for that.

But if you read my post carefully, you'll see I did actually discuss what Dwyer's mother told Zinn. To repeat myself:

But he did love the photograph, actually, according to his mother. “He just felt somewhat embarrassed at being singled out because so many other soldiers were doing exactly what he'd done,” Zinn says that Dwyer’s mom relayed.

So tell us: How exactly does your commercial for your book tie in to a post about helping soldiers with PTSD? Just wondering.


I think, CLH, that Mike was trying to communicate a second message probably under a "spin".


Thanks, we're aware. But we're trying to cut off rabbit trails and keep comments on ... point with the topic raised. ( : Best!

Gina Dalfonzo

Although I've already talked with Mike privately, I'll go ahead and second that. As is spelled out in our comment policy, comments do need to be relevant to the post under which they appear, and neither pacifism nor books on Chesterton were really relative in this case. The issue at hand is caring for members of our military who are suffering.

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