Jack Ohman

The small, devastating face of yet another war

Omran Daqneesh, 5, in an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo. Five other children were killed in the attack.
Omran Daqneesh, 5, in an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo. Five other children were killed in the attack. Aleppo Media Center

We all saw the image: the shattered-looking 5-year-old boy from Aleppo, sitting in the back of an ambulance, his face caked with blood, left eye swollen shut, covered with gray dust, his vacant stare reflecting the mind-numbing catastrophe of the Syrian civil war.

We have become sadly accustomed to war photographs of most kinds, except for those of children.

They haunt more, because if there’s one thing mankind can agree upon, it’s the love for our kids. This boy, whose name is Omran Daqneesh, could be anyone’s child.

Omran’s brother died in the same blast. There was no photograph of him staring at the world, blank-faced and in shock. His death was remarked upon only as a footnote to his brother’s survival.

Of course, there have been millions of photographs taken during war since the invention of the camera. During World War II, American editors wrestled with the question of whether to depict dead U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen. Among the many photographs taken in that era, some of the most horrified international reaction was to a picture of a burned, screaming infant in Shanghai, China, in 1937.

Over 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, a number nearly identical to all the deaths of American servicemen and women in World War II. You don’t hear much talk of them at the mall or in the sports bars.

Entitled “Bloody Saturday,” that photo seared the world’s conscience. The photographer was never able to determine whether the child lived or died; the photo was the baby’s own epitaph.

But there have been so many others, sadly. During Japan’s brutal and inhumane 1937 invasion of Nanking, a profoundly shocking photograph of a Japanese soldier brandishing a baby at the end of a bayonet illustrated mankind’s own inhumanity.

Some of the most devastating photographs of the Vietnam War were of children. Many Americans still recall with horror the pictures in Life magazine of the dead children of My Lai, lined up in a road.

AP photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a 1972 U.S. napalm strike, her skin burned, was the most riveting image of the conflict, making many more Americans ask themselves just what the hell we were doing there.

The picture of Omran, his hair covered with pulverized concrete, his face covered in blood, is the latest in the long litany of poignant war photographs.

Prose against war is almost always an academic exercise now; images rule public opinion. Over 400,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, a number nearly identical to all the deaths of American servicemen and women in World War II.

You don’t hear much talk of them at the mall or in the sports bars. The Olympics were on, football is coming; don’t be a downer.

But then there’s Omran, probably unaware that his face is now instantly recognizable to half the planet, reminding us of the thousands of dead and wounded children, casualties of war, who are not immortalized in iconic photos.

What good will come of the world knowing his face if Putin, Assad, Islamic State and the rest of the world won’t be moved, again, by yet another shattered child?

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