The Star-Spangled Truth: Reviewing the Ban on Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins

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From the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq, fallen soldiers are quietly and discretely flown home. Together, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of some 4,825 American soldiers since the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. As casualties continue to rise on both civilian and coalition fronts, the media continues to debate policy issues in theoretical terms while following a Bush administration policy that bars photographers from taking images of the coffins of fallen soldiers. While there are many perspectives to consider over this issue, ultimately the Defense Department and the new administration should decide that the public should be exposed to images of fallen soldiers so that the visual reality of war is apparent for all to see.
At the same time, the media’s daily agenda seems to suggest that the lack of these images is further caused by a serious deficiency in reporting from those regions. As in the early coverage of the Vietnam War, the media’s “watchdog” role in the political sphere has been limited and public knowledge and understanding of the situation is left to the imagination of viewers. In a potential reversal of a policy endorsed by the Bush administration, it is a good sign that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama have placed the ban on taking pictures of soldiers’ coffins under review by the Defense Department.
Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, the Defense Ministry reinstated the policy of barring pictures of soldiers’ coffins, as first declared in 1991 — a move which has spurred arguments on both sides. In 2004, John Molin, a deputy undersecretary of defense, defended the policy, stating that the public display of coffins through the media would solicit “unwarranted or undignified” attention.
Just last month, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk asserted that the ban on pictures should and would stay in place until official review would dictate otherwise.
“We don’t want families to feel pressure that they have to be at Dover because the media is covering it,” Melnyk said.
While the government has asserted a need for privacy in regard to the soldiers’ families and the undue pressure such pictures would place on them, it cannot be denied that the government has sought to cover the rising death toll, and on a larger scale, the vast destruction that the wars have caused.
In 2004, then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware felt that it was dishonorable to sneak dead soldiers “back into the country under the cover of night.” This secretive practice also arguably prevents the magnitude of death and destruction from reaching Americans, a stance that Ralph Begleiter, a University of Delaware professor, took in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the government. In another case, the court held that the ban protected privacy and did not violate the First Amendment in its guarantees of “freedom of speech and of the press.”
While the government is arguing that the media does not have the right to cover coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, it should not be a question left to the government. Furthermore, in some respects it is not just for the family to decide, as grieving for fallen soldiers is a national right and even a national duty.
Begleiter asserted, “It’s a right for all Americans to pay their respects for those who made the sacrifice. It is not a right held exclusively for the families themselves.”
The issue of “privacy,” repeatedly argued by government officials, has been refuted on the grounds that coffins are covered and soldiers are not identified in images. Coffins have come to represent a strong, tangible image that goes beyond casualty statistics and the limited media coverage of two unpopular and unsuccessful operations.
While President Obama has not issued a direct opinion, he has indicated that consultations with families of the fallen and an assessment of the policy and its past implementation will be part of the decision-making process. A key question is whether the administration will be able to address the preference of the families without obstructing the media’s role in reporting, or whether photography should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In a world where seeing is believing, visuals are sobering and loss is a reality. Cloaked in red, white and blue, loss has, for the last 18 years, quietly and without fanfare slipped out of foreign terrains and into domestic hands. Hopefully, this policy will change.

Frida Alim is a third-year political science major. She can be reached at aabdelal@uci.edu.

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