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February 12, 2009

Tug of War

Encouraged by the Obama administration's ill advised campaign to reverse as many of George Bush's policies as possible mere weeks after taking office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is revisiting a policy he last tried to jettison only one year ago. Why the rush to re-examine a decision made so recently?

Little, aside from the direction of the political wind, has changed during the past twelve months to merit abrupt reversal of a nearly twenty year old policy. It seems odd, therefore, this haste to reverse a decision repeatedly examined and reaffirmed in peacetime and time of war.

The historical record shows little support for the notion that the last occupant of the White House created this policy to somehow "hide" the cost of war. Inconveniently for conspiracy theorists, the policy dates back to 1991 and a short-lived and successful war which enjoyed widespread popular support. In November of 2000, Bill Clinton (no doubt hoping to shield his Republican successor from opposition to a war still three years into the future) revisited the decision and issued an order reaffirming the ban. The decision was again reviewed and reaffirmed by the Bush administration after it became apparent the Clinton-era order had not been strictly enforced.

Advocates of lifting the ban make what appear to be compelling arguments for allowing photographers to capture and disseminate images of flag-draped caskets landing at Dover, but these arguments don't stand up well to informed inspection.

1. "The Bush administration only wants the ban so they can hide the true cost of war." Joe Biden advanced this theory during the 2004 presidential campaign:

...vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., spoke out against the policy when he was a senator representing Delaware, saying in 2004 that it was shameful for dead soldiers to be "snuck back into the country under the cover of night."

What is shameful is the ugly way in which self serving politicians seek to use the images of dead servicemen to bolster an anti-war agenda. What shameful secret was Bill Clinton trying to hide when he reaffirmed the ban in November of 2000? America was at peace then. There was no "tragic cost of war" to hide, and yet a Democrat came to the same conclusion as his Republican predecessor: that the rights of grieving families outweighed the media's morbid desire to exploit what should be an intimate and exquisitely private moment.

2. The media "need" these images released. The ban prevents them from conveying the tragic cost of war.

Really? What, pray tell, prevents the press from using the 361 images mistakenly released in 2004?

Or this photo, snapped by a civilian contractor in violation of DoD policy? It appeared on front pages all over the nation in 2004.

Or the many images of flag draped coffins which aired on TV news broadcasts in early 2003 before the Bush administration reinstated enforcement of the long standing ban?

Or this Pulitzer Prize winning series, which includes interviews, photographs and videos?

Literally hundreds of these images are being hidden from the public ... right in plain sight! Yet how often do any of us see them? If these are so integral a part of conveying the cost of war (and if conveying the cost of war is so important to the media) why aren't these images being used?

How many thousands of images do the media need to convey a message they claim can only be brought home by graphic photos? If the hundreds of images out there aren't sufficient, what would be considered sufficient? Does anyone really believe the push to convey the hidden cost of war will end if this ban is lifted?

3. The media should not be prevented from "honoring" fallen soldiers and Marines and families should have the option of allowing media access to their loved one's final journey.

Sec. Gates is one of many who have advanced this argument:

"If the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better,"

What proponents of lifting the ban don't tell us is that it covers only the transport of the casket back to the United States for burial. Once the remains are released to a funeral home or to the family, bereaved military families can and do contact the media; submit their own photos; request that a photographer cover the transport of the body from Dover back to their home. No one prevents them from doing any of these things, and in fact some military families have chosen to take advantage of their right to request media coverage of their loved ones' final journey.

In fact, in 2006 one such request garned no less an honor than the Pulitzer Prize. For an entire year, a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News was granted full access to a Marine CACO (casualty assistance officer) as he went about the sad duty of assisting bereaved families:

Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler spent a year with the Marines stationed at Aurora's Buckley Air Force Base who have found themselves called upon to notify families of the deaths of their sons in Iraq. In each case in this story, the families agreed to let Sheeler and Heisler chronicle their loss and grief. They wanted people to know their sons, the men and women who brought them home, and the bond of traditions more than 200 years old that unite them.

These gentlemen covered the story with compassion and sensitivity and it offers an enduring testament both to the military's commitment to bereaved families and the cost of war. This military wife of nearly 30 years only found out about the story because she reads milblogs online.

So much for the media's fervent desire to convey the true cost of war or "honor" our dead. How many newspapers covered the final journey of PFC Chance Phelps? Google it sometime and be prepared to wade through hundreds of mainstream media accounts of this inspiring story...

Oops. What was I thinking? You won't find them. What you will find are pages and pages of military forums and milblogs who covered the story. The NY Times? The Washington Post? Not interested.

So much for their desire to honor our fallen heroes, Mr. Gates.

The sad truth is that what they're hoping for is not the chance to honor our military. They can easily do that by writing about these men and women, by showing photographs of them while they were alive, by talking to their family members about their grief and loss, by telling us why they fought or why they joined the military; what they hoped to accomplish.

But then that's the real problem, isn't it? That's where we get to the real crux of this issue. The press could so easily be reminding the American public each and every day of the cost of this war.

We in the military live with that cost. We grieve and we bleed along with the families every time we lose another one of our own. We memorialize and honor our dead, and we strive to keep the memories of their lives alive even if they are no longer with us.

But the mainstream media, with rare exceptions, have chosen to look the other way. There are thousands of stories to be told: stories of bravery, of honor, of integrity and selfless sacrifice. The war has a thousand faces - nearly 5000 to date - each of them dear to us and each of them unique in his or her own way. Each of their lives has its own story to tell of the true cost of war and if the press were willing to bring those stories to their reading and viewing public, all America would mourn along with us.

But a flag draped coffin, like a dutiful soldier, cannot speak for itself. It is faceless, voiceless, conveniently and antiseptically severed from the life within. Like a blank slate it can only silently endure the self serving narratives spun by those who purport to lift the veil that hides the true cost of war.

And therein lies its value.

Michela Wrong says she is ‘sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’. She thinks we need to see more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq because it could help to make us anti-war. ‘We are literal-minded creatures. To believe something, we need to see it’, she writes.

This looks like the journalism of attachment taken to a new low, where the journalist’s role becomes one of seeking out grisly scenes of dead children and dismembered body parts in an attempt to wake the viewing and reading public from their ignorance. But taking photos or film footage of the dead, whether in neat coffins in Delaware or on the bloody streets of Fallujah, is not the same as making an argument against war - and it is a sorry substitute for journalistic investigation and interrogation of the facts. Horrible photos from war zones should not be banned, but nor should they be seen as an end in themselves, a way of convincing us of an argument.

...In the past, classic, dramatic war photos derived their power by encapsulating a general public mood about war. Today, some journalists and anti-war activists seem to think that images are all you need to create a mood. They want the media to show the most gruesome pictures they can find, in the hope that such pictures will expose Bush and his supporters and make everyone else anti-war. That’s the easy, and cynical, way out - surely what we really need about the war in Iraq are some hard political arguments.

Posted by Cassandra at February 12, 2009 05:48 AM

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It is telling that these folks demanding access to flag draped coffins in the furtherance of anti-war propaganda are disinterested in the 3000+ innocent civilians murdered on 9/11. Or the woman sentenced in Saudi Arabia to a year in prison and 100 lashes for her "adultery". She had the effrontery to get gang raped and impregnated after getting a ride along the road. She wasn't married by the way.

I suppose Daniel Pearl had it coming at the hands of Zarqawi and the recent fiasco involving one of the Cole terrorists who had his trial cancelled.

Starting to see a pattern here? Our situation is getting serious!

Posted by: vet66 at February 12, 2009 09:47 AM

She had the effrontery to get gang raped and impregnated after getting a ride along the road. She wasn't married by the way.

Impudent female! She caused her rapists to commit the sin of adultery!

This is why women must be controlled!

Posted by: Moqtada al Sadr at February 12, 2009 10:59 AM

"Really? What, pray tell, prevents the press from using the 361 images mistakenly released in 2004?"

You just don't get it do you? Those weren't taken "today"! Those are from years ago.
*rolling eyes*
sheesh! Do I gotta 'splain ev'r thin' to ya?
Reminds me of these guys -- petty and petulent.
Although, I have to say, I share the base sentiment of the Mom at the end of this one -- "Beat it, kid" should automagically be the "phrase of the day" for the gate guards at Dover every time the media come sniffin' around.

Posted by: DL Sly at February 12, 2009 11:12 AM

And I'm willing to bet that a large majority of these anti-war, we-must-see-the-flag-draped-coffins people are the same people who object to the gruesome photos of the aftermath of abortion...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at February 12, 2009 11:33 AM

Cass, thank you! Living here in Colorado I was able to read as it was printed the amazing story in the Rocky that Sheeler and Heisler wrote. Not only that, but as someone who grew up in Wyoming - and has been to/through Dubois many times - reading Taking Chance was very hard to do.

That being said, I don't believe the press should be allowed at Dover at all. What the family wants to do after that particular time is up to each of them. The journey is for their loved one, but it is also for themselves. I truly believe the choice should be theirs as to if they want to invite the media to have a part of their grief.

Posted by: Nina at February 12, 2009 11:36 AM

The interesting thing of this, vis a vis "blood and guts photos from Iraq" is that, right now, there are less people being killed in Iraq than there are in the state of California (Iraq and California are approx the same size)...

Looks like the "blood and guts" well is drying up over here, because we're actually getting the job done ("we" refers to Coalition AND Iraqi folks!)

Posted by: SGT B at February 13, 2009 12:19 AM

Michela Wrong says she is ‘sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’. She thinks we need to see more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq because it could help to make us anti-war.

Well, I'm kinda sickened and disgusted with Mizz Wrong's (wow -- there's an apt surname) attitude.

Her experience with "graphic violence" and "blood and guts" is obviously limited to what she sees on direct-to-DVD movies and her knowledge of what's occurring *now* in Iraq is obviously limited to what her overactive imagination sees through her Third Eye...

Posted by: BillT at February 13, 2009 05:13 AM

Michela Wrong says she is ‘sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’. She thinks we need to see more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq because it could help to make us anti-war.

The media should replay the civilian people jumping from the WTC on 9/11 right along with the deaths of military people in Iraq.
We're all anti-war,but some of us are anti-letting an enemy murder us without retaliating.
Do these people really believe that if we don't respond the enemy will stop killing us??

Posted by: firefirefire at February 13, 2009 06:03 AM

Do these people really believe that if we don't respond the enemy will stop killing us??




Posted by: BillT at February 13, 2009 07:07 AM