What set Army Spc. Travis Babbitt's last moments in Iraq apart was that he confronted them in front of a journalist's camera.
An Associated Press photograph of the mortally wounded Babbitt remains a rarity — one of a handful of pictures of dead or dying American service members to be published in this country since the start of the Iraq war more than two years ago.
A review of six prominent U.S. newspapers and the nation's two most popular newsmagazines during a recent six-month period found almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died. The same publications ran 44 photos from Iraq to represent the thousands of Westerners wounded during that same time.
Many photographers and editors believe they are delivering Americans an incomplete portrait of the violence that has killed 1,797 U.S. service members and their Western allies and wounded 12,516 Americans.
Journalists attribute the relatively bloodless portrayal of the war to a variety of causes — some in their control, others in the hands of the U.S. military, and the most important related to the far-flung nature of the conflict and the way American news outlets perceive their role.
"We in the news business are not doing a very good job of showing our readers what has really happened over there," said Pim Van Hemmen, assistant managing editor for photography at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
"Writing in a headline that 1,500 Americans have died doesn't give you nearly the impact of showing one serviceman who is dead," Van Hemmen said. "It's the power of visuals."
Publishing such photos grabs readers' attention, but not always in ways that news executives like. When the Star-Ledger and several other papers ran the Babbitt photo in November, their editors were lashed by some readers — who called them cruel, insensitive, even unpatriotic.
Deirdre Sargent, whose husband was deployed to Iraq, e-mailed editors of the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., that the photo left her "shaking and in tears for hours." She added: "It was tacky, unprofessional and completely unnecessary."
Babbitt's mother, Kathy Hernandez, expressed ambivalent sentiments. "That is not an image you want to see like that," said Hernandez, still shedding tears of fury and sadness six months after her son's death. "Your kid is lying like that and there is no way you can get there to help them."
Hernandez — who lives in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio — wishes the newspapers at least had waited until after her son's funeral to run the photo. But she has no doubt why they wanted to print it.
"I do think it's an important thing, for people to see what goes on over there," Hernandez said in a phone interview. "It throws reality more in your face. And sometimes we can't help reality."
In virtually every conflict since the beginning of the 20th century, the debate has been renewed: Do Americans need to see the most vivid pictures of the consequences of war?
One camp has argued against publishing graphic images of U.S. casualties, saying the pictures hurt morale, aid the enemy and intrude on the most intimate moments of human suffering.
Journalists, in contrast, generally have invoked their responsibility as witnesses — believing they must provide an unsanitized portrait of combat.
"There can be horrible images, but war is horrible and we need to understand that," said Chris Hondros, a veteran war photographer whose pictures are distributed by the Getty Images agency. "I think if we are going to start a war, we ought to be willing to show the consequences of that war."
Among the most arresting images of the last three years: the charred bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallouja, by Khalid Mohammed of the Associated Press; the stoic face of an exhausted U.S. Marine, cigarette dangling from his lip, by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times; the wrenching series of pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated at the Abu Ghraib prison, taken by the prison guards; and Hondros' tableau of blood-stained Iraqi children whose parents had been mistakenly shot to death before their eyes.
So why have photographs of the American dead and wounded been so few and far between?