26 February 2009

Media Coverage of War Dead

Not long ago, various entities in the media got all worked up because the White House wouldn't allow photographers into the Oval Office for publicity shots of the new President. I thought at the time that their complaints were more or less totally ridiculous and said so here. In part my irritation over that flap was colored by my sense that the press has been supine when significantly more important matters were at stake. For example, over the past two decades (since the first Gulf War) the military has prevented photographs of the caskets of returning war casualties. The press has basically capitulated completely.

Military personnel escorting coffins at Dover Air Force Base in
one of hundreds of photographs the Pentagon released in 2004.
Photograph: Agence France Press.

Today, the government rescinded that policy, sort of. According to this story in The New York Times Defense Secretary Gates announced that "the news media will now be allowed to photograph the coffins of America’s war dead as their bodies are returned to the United States, but only if the families of the dead agree."* With all due respect, I think the families of military dead ought to have no say in this. Men and women who head off in the military are public figures - they represent the country. Their deaths in service are the cost - in the case of Iraq, the senseless cost - of policies our government is implementing. The rest of us get off Scot free and are happy enough with that. We do not, however, respect or honor the sacrifice of the dead or their families by allowing their remains to be secreted back into the country. The claim to 'privacy' simply masks the cost of war. I have made this and similar points here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Do not misunderstand me. I know from personal experience exactly how obnoxious and intrusive the press can be when a young person dies. But the press is hardly going to be showing us dismembered and maimed bodies. (After all, the military still keeps the press corralled "on the ground" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is another matter though.) What they might show us is the mounting number of flag-draped caskets that are coming back as the result of military adventures. To the man quoted in The Times story who claims that allowing coverage of returning war dead will simply "politicize our fallen" I would say, that the decision to go to war is a political one. While I am saddened by the fact that this man's son died in Iraq, unfortunately, the politics of the matter started well before his casket was shipped home. (And, of course, as The Times reporter makes clear, Bush the elder's initial policy decision to prevent photographs of the returning dead was itself politically motivated.) We here at home can only assess whether the sacrifice being made is 'worth it' if we have some basis for knowing what sacrifice is actually being made. The "new"policy persists in making that task especially difficult.
* You can find other earlier stories from The Times on this issue here and here and here and here.

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Blogger hatfield girl said...

I had not realised that the suppressing of the impact of so many killed would have had been extended to US fallen as well. In the UK there is almost nothing on either the wounded or the dead. Recognition of the numbers of Iraqis killed is not just denied, but numbers are not even taken. Nor had I realised that this is a policy introduced by the first President Bush (or should that be President Bush I ?)

Thinking that Americans do what they do but at least they own what they are doing, unlike the secretive state that is UK practice, is obviously mistaken. As is the belief that in the US there is an open political elite, unlike in the UK where there is an open hereditary and appointed elite.

Naive of me.

05 March, 2009 09:03  

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