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April 25, 2004 - Bring Out Your Dead

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What to do with all those photographs…. 


Which photographs? 


This we started to see the photographs our administration had been working hard on to suppressing.  Coffins in rows in a hanger at Dover Air Force base in Delaware.  Coffins lined up in a C-130 on a runway in Kuwait, staring the journey back.  Those photographs.  And yes, each casket contained the remains of another member of the American services killed in Iraq.


To review – see this from the New York Times and International Herald Tribune.


Web site publishes photos of war coffins

Pentagon calls their release a mistake

Bill Carter, Friday, April 23, 2004

The bare bones story is here -


The Pentagon's ban on images of dead soldiers' homecomings at all military bases was briefly relaxed, as hundreds of photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base were released on the Internet by a Web site dedicated to combating government secrecy.

The Web site, The Memory Hole (www.thememoryhole.org), had filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year, seeking any pictures of coffins arriving from Iraq at the Dover base in Delaware, the destination for most of the bodies.  The Pentagon on Thursday labeled the Air Force Air Mobility Command's decision to grant the request a mistake, but news organizations quickly used a selection of the 361 images taken by Department of Defense photographers.

The release of the photographs came one day after a contractor working for the Pentagon fired a woman who had taken photos of coffins of war dead being loaded onto a transport plane in Kuwait.  Her husband, a co-worker, was also fired after the pictures appeared in The Seattle Times on Sunday. The contractor, Maytag Aircraft, said the woman, Tami Silicio of Seattle, and her husband, David Landry, had "violated Department of Defense and company policies."


Well, there are freedom of press issues here – lose your job if you tell the truth, looking at it one way.  And there are questions of taste and all that, and of politics.


Indeed the Pentagon and the Bush administration worked rather hard at enforcing their policy of forbidding news organizations to show photographs of the homecomings of the war dead at military bases.   The argument was that 1.) this policy was put in place during the first war in Iraq and no one seemed terribly bothered by it then, and 2.) this policy was simply an effort to protect the sensitivities of military families.


Many news organizations did protest this policy.  But these new shots were a surprise.  I saw a fellow from the Washington Post on television say he, and the Times and the networks and everyone else, had no idea the Defense Department itself was taking photographs of the coffins arriving home.  Russ Kick, the fellow who runs The Memory Hole, filed a Freedom of Information Act request.  He guessed right.

Well, the shots were not being released, given that 1991 policy.  Kick forced the issue.

But as
Bill Carter points out –


That policy was not consistently followed, however, and President Bill Clinton took part in numerous ceremonies honoring dead servicemen.  In March 2003, the Pentagon issued a directive it said was established in November 2000, saying, "There will no be arrival ceremonies of, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from" air bases.


So, even if this was a policy, until now it had been a loose one.  And that raises the question of why it was sometimes enforced and sometimes not.


People who didn’t like the war saw it this way - the administration war seeking to keep unwelcome images of the war's human cost away from the American public.  On the other hand, the Pentagon maintains that only individual services at a grave site give “proper context” to the sacrifice of soldiers and their relatives.  "The president believes that we should always honor and show respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Thursday night.

Carter points out that a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in December found that sixty-two percent of Americans said the public should be allowed to see pictures of the military honor guard receiving caskets of soldiers killed in Iraq as they are returned to the United States.  Twenty-seven percent said the public should not be allowed to see those ceremonies.  Not that it matters.

So now?


The Pentagon said the pictures had been taken for historical purposes.  Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Cassidy, a spokeswoman for the air force, said at a briefing Thursday that the release had violated the Pentagon's rules and no further copies would be distributed.


Case closed.  The folks who released the photographs given the Freedom of Information Act paperwork will be reprimanded.  Releasing the shots was a mistake.


But is the cat out of the bag?  Or are the Bush folks closing the barn door after the horse has left the building?  (Choose you cliché.)


Mark Lawson points out that photographs matter – that images matter.


See Pictures of flag-draped coffins could kill Bush's re-election hopes

Mark Lawson, The Guardian (UK), Saturday April 24, 2004


Here’s his take on this – doofy Dukakis in a tank and grinning Bush holding up a plastic turkey in Baghdad are images people do remember.


American elections are frequently a duel between two photographs.  The candidate tries to find the right picture, the snap which encapsulates his campaign: the young Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK, or Ronald Reagan with his hand on his heart in front of a flag.  His opponent hopes for the emergence of the wrong picture, the snap they didn't want on the poster: Gary Hart with a floozy on a yacht; Michael Dukakis looking like an Action Man model in a tank.


George Bush has so far struggled to locate his chosen photo: the turkey he was pictured serving in Iraq proved embarrassingly to be fake, the "Mission Accomplished" banner under which he parked his plane on an aircraft carrier now looks ludicrously premature.  President Bush's handlers might have consoled themselves that there was at least no risk of a bimbo picture coming out but, this week, there was much worse.  America started to see the photographs Bush was dedicated to suppressing.


Yep.  That’s one way to look at it.  But the “coffin pictures” are now out – and you cannot give millions of Americans lobotomies to erase the memory of the images.  Bush has lost this round.


This is a defeat for what was surely one of the most brutish maneuvers of modern politics.  The White House has claimed that they were protecting the dignity of the dead and the privacy of their families, but many families were desperate for their lost to have their moment on the evening news.


The truth is that the invisibility of the military fallen was a decision driven purely by spin.  A governing belief of US politics is that the Vietnam War failed partly because news coverage made President Johnson resemble some kind of national funeral director, presiding over the obsequies of young men.


Accordingly, Bush's image-handlers quite deliberately decided that neither he nor his war in Iraq would become associated with long, low boxes draped with the American flag.


Lawson says it is really not necessary to be anti-war to see this as -


… an act of cruel duplicity   A leader's most profound decision is to ask his soldiers to die in a war. If this is a leader's sincere belief, then it's his/her prerogative, at least until the next election.  But it is not acceptable to pretend that the consequence of his/her decision is anything but death.


Part of the deal that soldiers make for the potential sacrifice of their lives in a cause is that they will have unusually elaborate funerals, with flags and trumpets and parades of arms, and that these might provide some consolation to their families and to their posthumous reputation.  In modern times, an aspect of these obsequies has been publicity - until the Bush administration chose to withdraw the privilege in protection of its re-election hopes.


Lawson does grant that these photos can easily be “appropriated” by the anti-Bush anti-war left and families who are pro-Bush and pro-war and who have lost a son or daughter might be “appalled that they were being called in aid by pacifists.”  He suggests some sort of “permission to publish” consent form to deal with that.


But he does point out that images matter, and that “the publication of the cadaver montage - in which Bush's face is made up of squares containing smiles and stares of military men and women who are now all dust - threatens to become one of the most powerful propaganda images in history.”  (You will find that here.)


But now the coffin shots are out.   Trouble?


Forced to explain how it can simultaneously be heroic to die for your country, but necessary to be shipped back in a silence and secrecy generally associated with shame, Bush may be on the way to becoming a president whose administration was snapped by photographs.




But here’s another take from Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly – who argues those photos could actually help the Bush administration quite a bit -


And I just don't get it. I don't even support the war, but if anything these pictures might push me in that direction, not the opposite.  It's almost impossible not to be moved by these photos, and impossible not to recognize from them how much care is taken with the bodies and how seriously these deaths are taken.


The Bush administration's political judgment is obvious: pictures of dead soldiers on the front pages of newspapers will turn people against the war.  And maybe they're right.  But my guess is different: seeing these pictures would make most Americans feel pride in their country and determined that these lives not be lost in vain.  On the other hand, hiding the pictures just makes it look like the administration is ashamed of its war.


The administration's judgment, I suspect, is not just the judgment of civilians with little military experience, it's also the judgment of people who have learned the lessons of Vietnam too well.  The irony is rich.


Maybe so.  But this isn’t Vietnam, right?


So the coffins photos are all over the news.  Will their publication hurt Bush, or actually help him?  We’ll see what happens.




Just a note, regarding the first Bush campaign advertisements on television –


So why is it OK for Bush to run a campaign ad of rescue workers taking a flag-draped coffin out of the WTC ruins, and it's not OK for our free press to run a picture of a flag-draped coffin coming back from Iraq?


A question I came across at here.   Not a bad question.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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