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Images of War in the Battle for Votes

During the Vietnam War it was television that brought battlefield bloodshed into American living rooms. This year Americans, or at least Iowans, may have political campaigns to thank for bringing them up close images of the warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent Edwards mailer.

Recent mailers sent out in Iowa by Democrats John Edwards and Bill Richardson include news photographs of troops, some in action, others wounded from battle. One snapshot on the Edwards flier shows an American soldier seated on the edge of a hospital bed, his face bloodied, staring blankly. Another shows a wounded warrior being carried off a transport plane on a stretcher, his head wrapped in a bandage. "End the conflict by bringing troops home," the piece says.

A spokeswoman for the Edwards campaign said the photographs were images sold by a photo agency, a common practice in direct mail advertising. These are not the first ads to use powerful pictures from tragic events. In October, Hillary Clinton used footage from the September 11th attacks in a television commercial.

Steve McMahon, a media consultant to Democrats who is not currently attached to a presidential campaign, said there is very rarely a downside to using such images during a campaign.

"Anything that captures people's attention and makes a mail piece jump out of an otherwise mundane pile is a good thing, even if its controversial. One might even say, especially if its controversial," McMahon said. "There's always a taste issue, but one assumes that candidates have reasonably good judgment in these matters, and usually they do."

Just to be sure, McMahon said, campaigns typically test mail pieces with focus groups to make sure that no one recoils in horror, or is moved by the piece in an unexpected direction. "The danger of a piece backfiring is minimal," he said.

Republican media strategist Nelson Warfield it is "a risky play" for candidates to "exploit another's wounds to win votes."

"Voters are well aware war is hell," Warfield said. "They don't need a fancy lawyer in a $400 haircut to explain it to them."

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  November 8, 2007; 10:55 AM ET
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