Late last month, photos of flag-draped coffins arriving from Iraq hit TV screens and newspapers -- including the front page of The Times-Picayune. The somber images hardly fit the commotion surrounding them. In photograph after photograph, rows of anonymous metal coffins, each wrapped in an American flag, were laid end-to-end with military precision. The unnamed government photographers who took these pictures captured the gravity of this wartime ritual. In doing so, they documented fleeting and poignant moments: solemn-faced soldiers carefully tucking a flag over a coffin lid; an honor guard standing in salute in the rain. These are not photographs that blare or bellow, but reflect.
The uproar over these photos, taken alternately overseas and at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, mostly stems from the fact that they were never supposed to have come into public view. The first Bush administration in 1991 enacted the current policy that bans media at military installations from photographing returning war casualties. At the time, the Defense Department said it was following the wishes of military families who complained of intrusive photographers. Supporters contend the ban helps preserve the dignity of fallen soldiers. Critics call it a politically convenient blackout by a government that would rather not have Americas reminded so acutely of the human cost of war. "There was a mixture of political motives and respect for the war dead," says David Perlmutter, an associate professor of mass communications at Louisiana State University and author of two books on photo images in wartime.
The current administration has strictly enforced the policy, but two sources brought the images to light last week. Tami Silico, a Seattle-based contract employee working in Kuwait, said she snapped a photo of a military honor guard in order to reassure grieving families that their loved ones' remains were treated with dignity. That photo was published in The Seattle Times on April 18, and Silico was subsequently fired. Her former employer, Colorado-based defense contractor Maytag Aircraft, said she violated federal and company regulations. Silico's husband, a co-worker, also lost his job.
Meanwhile, Arizona citizen Russ Kick filed a Freedom of Information Act request for similar government photos -- and ended up receiving hundreds of them from the U.S. Air Force. Kick posted the photos on his Web site devoted to exposing government secrecy (www.thememoryhole.org), and media raced to broadcast or publish the images. Even as the Pentagon gave official notice that the Air Force had erred in releasing the photos, the images were circulating everywhere. "The genie was out of the bottle," Perlmutter says. "In this Internet age, you can't undo or control a leak."
When an individual's Web site disseminates government photos, credibility problems are likely to surface. Kick received more than 300 photos from the Air Force and didn't initially realize that 73 of the images were not of coffins of the Iraq war dead, but of the fallen Columbia Space Shuttle astronauts. He quickly moved to correct the error, but by that time, some media organizations had mistakenly broadcast or published the wrong photos obtained from his Web site. "The problem with a [media ban] like this is it creates a vacuum, and journalism abhors a vacuum," Perlmutter says. "A lot of newspapers rushed into printing these pictures."
Though the nearly 300 photos are now part of the public conscience, it's unlikely the current Bush administration will lift the media ban anytime soon. That is a shame. As Perlmutter points out, it's possible for the Defense Department to preserve the dignity of the fallen soldiers and not needlessly hide essential wartime images from a public that both needs and deserves to view them.
"Nobody is asking for ambush journalism; nobody wants the flowers at Arlington Cemetery trampled by cameramen," Perlmutter says. "They could allow something tasteful, maybe a pool (media) crew. They could work something out so that pictures are taken in a dignified, responsible way with limitations on what they can and cannot take."
The Associated Press' national wire moved several of the photos, one of which ran on the front page of The Times-Picayune on April 24. "The deaths of our soldiers is the paramount issue for any American citizen," says T-P managing editor Dan Shea, explaining the paper's decision to print the photo. "We would be extremely reluctant to show a dead American soldier on the battlefield. This is an honest and honorable and emotional and appropriate way to show this." We agree. Such photographs reflect an inevitable consequence of war. They also portray the final somber task of the American flag, whose image has been broadcast in war coverage being alternately venerated and desecrated, saluted and burned. In the photos of the war dead, the flag shrouds the remains of those who gave their lives for it. These are images over which a nation may grieve its collective loss. They remind all of us that sorrow and sacrifice are inherent in war. The images are our images; they are of us. Americans in wartime have the right and the responsibility to view them.