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In a November 2004 photo essay for the Los Angeles Times, photographer Luis Sinco documented the battle of Fallujah. His images of broken Iraqi bodies and buildings were, like so many others, simply recording the banality of death and destruction, but one picture of the new “Marlboro Man” resonated with news editors across the USA. Suddenly, Marine Lance Cpl James Blake Miller, 20, a “country boy” from tobacco growing Kentucky, was everywhere. His bloodied nose, smudged camouflage, and dangling cigarette portrait was splashed across the pages of hundreds of newspapers. On evening newscasts and in pro-war opinion pieces he was praised as the embodiment of the noble American fighting spirit.
Miller admitted not understanding “what all the fuss is about”, but his portrait was iconic, evoking images of past wars, connecting modern day observers to the GIs currently serving in Iraq and to past generations of soldiers fondly remembered in fading photographs. Today’s soldiers and marines might be fighting a war deplored by much of the world, and Miller himself may be, as the LA Times described him, “unassuming: of medium height, his face slightly pimpled, his teeth a little crooked”, but this man in uniform, smoking a cigarette, was somehow reassuring.
The New York Post, published by war supporter Rupert Murdoch, who has sat on the board of directors of Philip Morris, went further than any other paper, putting Blake’s picture on the front page, and offering that tabloid special, a zinging headline: “Marlboro men kick butt in Fallujah.”
The image certainly reinforced efforts to glamourise smoking and provided the industry a bonanza of free publicity—although one might argue Philip Morris pre-paid this picture with decades’ worth of Marlboro Man imagery. After the photo appeared, newspapers were filled with letters about Miller, some praising editors for celebrating this modern day “hero”, others chastising the papers for glorifying smoking. His mother went on record asking him to stop smoking, but Miller seemed to be using his new fame to get extra cartons delivered to his military unit.
During the first Gulf War, in 1991, Doonesbury cartoon strip creator Garry Trudeau had a much more telling and accurate take on the costs of smoking, in peacetime or during war. The panel reproduced here will not pack the iconic punch delivered by Luis Sinco’s photo of Corporal Miller, but it speaks a truth that still needs telling.