George Will

Could an alternative explanation be that a single fascist sniper fired the fatal shot while some loyalists were at rest? No. What was once thought to be blood spurting from the falling soldier's skull is actually a tassel on his cap. And Capa several times said the soldier was felled by machine-gun fire. In a slightly less dramatic photo of another falling soldier, taken by Capa at the same time -- the cloud configuration is the same as in "Falling Soldier" -- the soldier falls on the same spot.

In 1995, the controversy seemed to have been settled in Capa's favor when the fallen soldier supposedly was identified as Federico Borrell Garcia, an anarchist militiaman. But a 2007 Spanish documentary included a written eyewitness account of Borrell dying many miles away, behind a tree. There are no trees in the many pictures Capa took when he took "Falling Soldier."

The coolly analytic professionals at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan, which has the Capa archives, are commendably dispassionate about the "Falling Soldier" controversy. They also avoid postmodern mush, such as: All photographs are manipulative fabrications because the photographer chooses to point the camera here and not there, and, anyway, "Falling Soldier" is "basically" truthful because it illustrates the "essential truth" about war.

Capa was a man of the left and "Falling Soldier" helped to alarm the world about fascism rampant. But noble purposes do not validate misrepresentations. Richard Whelan, Capa's biographer, calls it "trivializing" to insist on knowing whether this photo actually shows a soldier mortally wounded. Whelan says "the picture's greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy."

Rubbish. The picture's greatness evaporates if its veracity is fictitious. To argue otherwise is to endorse high-minded duplicity -- and to trivialize Capa, who saw a surfeit of 20th-century war and neither flinched from its horrors nor retreated into an "I am a camera" detachment. As a warning about well-meaning falsifications of history, "Falling Soldier" matters because Capa probably fabricated reality to serve what he called "concerned photography." But this, too, matters:

There was the integrity of constant bravery in Capa's life, which was a headlong rush toward danger. He arrived on Omaha Beach with the first soldiers early on June 6, 1944, and was only 40 in 1954 when, on the move with French troops in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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