Should Photographers Be Allowed to Photograph the Flag Draped Caskets of Killed US Soldiers?
“I think it’s very dangerous for a free society to have all the information distilled and packaged by our government and given to us. Do we know to this day who we killed in Iraq? I don’t think so. If bringing war into the living room means that we as a people will say we don’t want to do it that way anymore we want to figure out other ways to solve these conflicts, then I would say that photography and television have done us a great service.”
– Michael Deaver, former Deputy White House Chief of Staff
An interesting article in the NY Times yesterday about photographing the coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers. According to the NYT, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a review of a military policy which prohibits the media from photographing the coffins of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.
From the NYT:
“He said he was ordering a review of the military policy that bars photographers from taking pictures of the return of the coffins, most of which are coming from Iraq and Afghanistan and go through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He also set a “short deadline” for a decision. The military has said the policy is meant to protect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers and maintain dignity. But skeptics, who include some families as well as opponents of the war in Iraq, say that the bodies in the returning coffins are not publicly identified, so privacy is not an issue, and that barring photographers is a political maneuver meant to sanitize the war.
The policy was put into place in 1991 during the first Gulf war and was renewed by the Bush administration as recently as a year ago when, Mr. Gates said, he raised the possibility of changing it. He said he was told — he did not say by whom — that allowing photographers would put undue pressure on families to go to Dover themselves and that in some cases that would be a hardship.”
My own personal opinion on this one is that you have to put the privacy of the families of these soldiers up against the broader rights to a free press and free speech. Given that there is no identifying information being photographed on these flagged draped caskets, I’d probably lean towards having this rule by the military overturned.
One thing that has been troubling to me about the war in Iraq is how restricted a free press has been. The quote above comes from former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver. Deaver said that in the documentary “American Photography, A Century of Images.” In that documentary Deaver talked a lot about how restrictive photography has become for war reporters.
Many cite the gut wrenching imagery coming from the Vietnam war as being a large part of what eventually ended that war. Even more than video, still images can evoke a power that is unmatched. A naked napalmed girl running down a road. A Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire, Eddie Adam’s famous image of an execution of a Viet Cong. These images leave an indelible imprint on our emotions and thinking.
Having learned how the opposition to the Vietnam War used these images, the current U.S. Military has been far more restrictive with photography in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to prohibiting photographs of things like caskets, the U.S. Military has been even more restrictive on the battle field.
In an article by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango in the NYT, they dig deeper into the pro-censorship policies of the U.S. government asking the question why are there 4,000 U.S. deaths and only a handful of images. In that article they report on the story of Zoriah Miller, a war photographer who took images of marines killed in a suicide attack and then faced tremendous professional repercussions from Maj. Gen. John Kelly who worked to have Miller barred from all U.S. military facilities throughout the world.
From the NYT:
” “It is absolutely censorship,” Mr. Miller said. “I took pictures of something they didn’t like, and they removed me. Deciding what I can and cannot document, I don’t see a clearer definition of censorship.”
The Marine Corps denied it was trying to place limits on the news media and said Mr. Miller broke embed regulations. Security is the issue, officials said.”
Seeing coffin draped caskets may make us all feel uncomfortable. But sometimes that’s what good photography is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. What do you think? Should the U.S. Military begin allowing photographers the ability to photograph flagged draped caskets of U.S. soldiers?