U.S Soldier dragged through Mogadishu, 1993

In 1992, when President George Bush sent U.S troops into Somalia, it was to prevent a famine by stopping Somali militias whose power struggles had caused the famine to begin with. Yet it was a media war that the United States was to lose in Somalia, ironic since its involvement was forced by the pictures of famine-stricken people there. In one of the clearest and earliest examples of the CNN effect, the war was repeatedly dogged by the dozens of press photographers. It is an anticipating media, not snipers or enemy combatants, that greeted the U.S landing forces in Mogadishu in December 9th 1992.

For a war that began with memorable images, it is both fitting and ironic that it ended because of another set of dramatic images. By July of 1993, the war had been bogged down. That month, a crowd had beaten four journalists to death, and most of the media fled the country. One of the remaning reporters was Toronto Star’s Paul Watson.

It was Watson’s photos of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu which spelled the beginning of the end for U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping force. In October 1993, domestic opinion turned hostile as horrified TV viewers watched images of the bloodshed — including this Pulitzer-prize winning footage of Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed’s supporters dragging the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu, cheering.

President Clinton immediately abandoned the pursuit of Aideed, the mission that cost Cleveland his life and gave the order for all American soldiers to withdraw from Somalia by March 31, 1994. Other Western nations followed suit. Chaos and traumas of those wild days were excellently recounted in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, later an award-winning film.

When the last U.N. peacekeepers left in 1995, ending a mission that had cost more than $2 billion, Mogadishu still lacked a functioning government. The battle deaths, and the harrowing images prompted lingering U.S. reluctance to get involved in Africa’s crises, including the following year’s genocide in Rwanda. In 1996, Osama bin Laden cited the incident as proof that the U.S. was unable to stomach casualties: when “one American was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu you left; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.” Never before or since had a photo altered a nation’s political destinies so much so.

uncensored original
Censored version published in Time magazine

The crowd turned more violent, and they forced him to enter into a leaving car. He bolted from it and took the topmost picture. The people in that photo looked a lot meaner and their eyes were focused on Watson, who defied the order to leave. It was this picture that AP ran (AP had tough policies against nudity). Supreme irony was that, as Watson noted, “decision was made to censor something sexually offensive, while the outrageous violence of desecrating a corpse is deemed safe for the general public’s consumption.”

As for photos where the soldier’s genitals are exposed, when Time magazine decided to print it, they decided to cover them up in a controversial decision.  The magazine’s photo editor Stephen Mayes observes: “[It] exposes the sensitivities of a nation that is militarily strong enough to confront one dead soldier but morally too insecure to risk the exposure of a single genital, even in such a non-sexual context?”


Now that you are here: I am doing something crassly commercial here. I just signed up for Patreon. Patreon is a fundraising platform. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” As you may notice in last few years, I have been posting very infrequently. But I want IP to go on for a long time and be sustainable. Linking a monetary value to a new post (not a ‘monthly salary’ — which is another way of doing Patreon) should give me a marginal incentive to write more. As far as the blog is concerned, nothing will change. No paywalls. Patreon is more useful for YouTubers and podcasters, but let’s see how it goes for me: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 

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