When soldiers killed in the war come home, should the press be allowed to take pictures?
It's not an easy question to answer.
The controversy over publishing the images of returning war in their flag-draped coffins dead has simmered since the start of the war in Iraq. The Bush administration, enforcing a policy that dates back to the Gulf War, bars the media from filming or photographing caskets bearing soldiers' remains. That policy was breached last week when the Seattle Times published a snapshot of military coffins being loaded onto a transport plane in Kuwait. The picture had been taken by Tami Silicio, a cargo handler for defense contractor Maytag Aircraft, which fired Silicio (and her husband, a co-worker) after the picture appeared in print.
Even as Silicio was losing her job, 361 photographs of caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware were being posted on The Memory Hole, a web site created to combat government secrecy. The pictures had unexpectedly been released by the Air Force in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last year. The Pentagon subsequently said that the photos should not have been made available, but it was too late to call them back. Images of the coffins led the evening news on Thursday, and appeared in countless newspapers the next morning.
The administration says its ban on media coverage is motivated solely by respect for the fallen soldiers' families. It argues that the mourners' right to privacy at a time of such anguish trumps any public or media interest in pictures of the coffins. That is hardly an unreasonable position, and it has been endorsed by the National Military Family Association, which said last week that "sensitivity to the grief of surviving families should be paramount."
But President Bush's critics suspect that behind the talk of sensitivity lurks crass ulterior motive: the desire to suppress a vivid reminder of the war's growing toll in lives. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware told CNN it was shameful for dead soldiers to be "snuck back into the country under the cover of night so no one can see that their casket has arrived." Former Senator Max Cleland, a maimed Vietnam veteran who has been campaigning heavily for John Kerry, said that Americans "must see the costs of war. They must see what it is producing. To hide it is unconscionable."
Well, yes and no. Only a naif would believe that the intensely political Bush White House hasn't weighed the political pros and cons of this issue. Obviously it has. Just as obviously, so have the president's -- and the war's -- opponents. Some of whom, it is perhaps worth mentioning, are not politicians but journalists. "The only reason somebody would come out against the use of these pictures," Steve Capus, executive producer of NBC's nightly news, told The New York Times, "is that they are worried about the political fallout." Those don't sound like the words of a man whose only interest in the matter is journalistic.
I don't buy the argument that Americans have to see footage of coffins wrapped in the Stars and Stripes to grasp the real cost of the Iraq war. News of soldiers' deaths comes almost daily, often accompanied by the current tally of the dead. Many papers print the name of every soldier killed, together with his -- and in some cases, her -- age, rank, unit, hometown, and circumstances of death. Americans have not lacked for information or images of injury, death, and mourning. What has gotten short shrift is not the price our troops have paid in blood, but the blessings their sacrifice has made possible -- the liberation of tens of millions of human beings in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries where tyranny and fear had long reigned.
Not everyone who calls for lifting the ban is cynical. Tami Silicio, the woman fired for taking the picture that ran in the Seattle Times, lost her oldest son to a brain tumor when he was 19. She knows the pain of burying a child and told a close friend that she just wanted to "let the parents know their children weren't thrown around like a piece of cargo, [but] treated with the utmost respect and dignity."
Would some grieving families experience media coverage of the ceremonies at Dover as an intrusion and a violation? Yes. But others would take comfort in witnessing the reverence and care with which American soldiers treat the remains of their fallen comrades. It is appropriate to take the emotions of the families into account. But on this issue there is no way to gauge how most of them would feel.
In the end, I come down in favor of the ban, but not out of respect for surviving parents, spouses, and children. No -- out of respect for the soldiers themselves.
Let the finest photographer in the world take a picture of flag-draped coffins, and all you will see are flag-draped coffins. For all the dignity and honor with which those coffins are handled, images like the ones published last week are utterly dehumanizing. They reduce Americans who died for their country to an abstraction. They deprive them of every shred of their individuality and personality. They turn them into nothing more than an icon -- a seven-foot box covered with an American flag, just like every other seven-foot, flag-covered box in every other picture of caskets coming off a C-5 cargo plane at Dover Air Force Base.
There is a chapel at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, high on the cliff that overlooks Omaha Beach. On its interior north wall are etched the words: "Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit."
That is no more and no less than every soldier killed in wartime deserves. Photographs of identical coffins lined up in rows speak only to their passing, not to their spirit. They are not the way a grateful nation honors its fallen heroes.