Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Coffins at Dover: Don’t look, don’t tell

May 2, 2004

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— There was a time when the Pentagon worried about passing a national exam on war. It was called "The Dover Test." Any decision to go to war had to take into account how long the public would tolerate pictures of coffins coming back through Dover Air Force Base.

Not anymore. Now we just ban the pictures. This ban came back into public notice after the Air Force mistakenly released photos of flag-draped coffins which ended up on a Web site called The Memory Hole. A few days earlier, the Maytag Aircraft Corp. fired contract worker Tami Silicio and her husband because her photo of coffins loaded onto a plane in Kuwait appeared on the front page of The Seattle Times.

There was nothing disrespectful about these photographers or these photographs. They showed metal coffins, one after another, covered with flags. Occasionally on the Web site, a soldier salutes and another tucks a flag around the casket as if he were tucking a blanket around a child's bed.

Nevertheless Defense Department officials quickly renewed the ban with White House protestations about dignity and respect. They said they were acting to protect the fallen from the prying eye of the media, not to shield the public from the powerful images. In the name of family sensitivity, they defended political sensitivity.

This tension around cameras and combat is as old as the battle of Antietam. When pictures of that bloody day were hung in Matthew Brady's studio, a reviewer wrote, "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it."

By World War I, the effect of images on public opinion so worried the French and British governments, says Susan Moeller, author of "Shooting War," that both made it a capital crime to bring a camera to the front lines. Flag-draped coffins became the symbolic substitute.

But in World War II, censorship was deliberately lifted because FDR's White House wanted citizens to understand why they too had to make sacrifices. As an editor who printed the early pictures of dead American soldiers in Life magazine wrote memorably: "Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid? Those are not the reasons. The reason is that words are never enough."

The Vietnam images are remembered as far more graphic, but a photographic turning point in that war was a 1969 Life magazine filled with head shots of the smiling young men who had lost their lives in just one week. This time an editor wrote, "More than we must know how many, we must know who."

Historically, photographs have not, by themselves, changed public opinion against an ongoing war. Moeller says, "Americans have handled photos of their dead very well when they believe the deaths are justified. In the Civil War and in World War II Americans accepted the bad news and the photographs of the dead. Americans reacted badly in World War I and in Vietnam to images of the dead when they discovered they were being misled about how the war was going."

So what of Iraq? Despite all the embeds and the 24/7 moving images, Americans have been largely protected from seeing the true and grisly products of war, especially death.

It's fair enough to ask whether we've been too protected from reality, whether protecting a family's privacy is protecting a public's innocence and ignorance.

We have shown images of concentration camps and killing fields. The media are full of violence. The recurring question -- often unanswered -- is how to show that war is hell without the hellishness. Is it wrong to be restrained? Is it invasive, exploitive, or honest to show war as horrific?

In such a context, how on earth can there be any doubt about showing a sanitized, symbolic array of 20 coffins in a plane or dozens in an aircraft hangar during a month when a hundred Americans are lost? Has our government flunked the confidence test?

The disconnect between homefront and warfront is still enormous. This is a war that demands little sacrifice from civilians. Now those who have made what everyone knows is the ultimate sacrifice are coming home through Dover. And we are asked only one thing: Don't look.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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