Images of War
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to the controversy over showing the coffin pictures of the war’s fallen soldiers, and to media correspondent Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: At Fort Hood, Texas, yesterday, joy, relief, laughter, tears and news cameras met the 4th Infantry Division as it returned from combat duty in Iraq.
SPOKESMAN: We bow our head in loving memory…
TERENCE SMITH: But no cameras covered the return to the United States of more than 50 of their fallen comrades. The soldiers of the 4th I.D. killed in Iraq, like all American military personnel killed overseas, have come home through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the largest military mortuary in the United States.
In the past, the arrival ceremony at Dover has been public, as it was in 1983 when President Reagan received the bodies of more than 240 Marines killed in Lebanon. But for the last two-and-a-half years the Pentagon has strictly enforced a policy originally enacted in 1991 that forbids news media coverage of the return of the fallen. That prohibition was broken this past week when pictures surfaced of both the preparations to return American dead and ceremonies greeting their arrival at Dover.
Last Sunday, the Seattle Times featured on its front page a photo taken by Tami Silicio, an American military contractor in Kuwait. The photo of flag-draped caskets prepared for transport was sent to the Times by a friend of Silicio. Both Silicio and her husband were fired by their employer, Maytag Aircraft, on Wednesday for violating company and Pentagon policies.
And yesterday thememoryhole.org, a Web site devoted to combating government secrecy, published over 350 photos of repatriation ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base. The Web site’s operator obtained the photos through a Freedom of Information Act request and received the photos from the Air Force last week. The Department of Defense said yesterday no further release of photos would be authorized.
The firing of Silicio and her husband was reported last night on the network evening news broadcast. The controversy, coupled with the release of the pictures by the air force, has led to renewed debate over the photo prohibition policy.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to discuss this are Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for media operations, and Dana Milbank, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post. Welcome to you both.
Bryan Whitman, as we noted in the setup, the ceremonies at Dover in the past have been quite public, rather formal, occasionally attended by presidents, President Reagan and others. Why the change in policy? Who imposed it back in 1991 and why?
BRYAN WHITMAN: Well, you raised the important point there. This is a policy that’s not really new. It’s a policy that is some 14 years old. And it’s a policy that was born out of a desire to find the right balance, the balance between respecting the privacy of our servicemen and their families, particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and that in providing access to news media to all our military operations.
TERENCE SMITH: But there have been exceptions in… It’s the policy but the practice, there have been exceptions.
BRYAN WHITMAN: There have been a couple of exceptions but for the most part the policy has been in force and adhered to over that 14-year period.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean President Clinton was there to receive the victims of the bombing of the USS Cole.
BRYAN WHITMAN: And there was an instance where exception was made when we had the tragic accident of Ron Brown’s aircraft.
TERENCE SMITH: But in other places around the world, you’ve done some reporting on this, Dana Milbank, the ceremonies are public and photograph?
DANA MILBANK: Well, they had been until last year. And that’s why the public may not be aware — and Bryan is quite correct that the policy at Dover dates from 1991 with very few exceptions. However, other air bases, sort of the intermediate point like Ramstein in Germany during the Afghanistan War, there were bases there, Andrews Air Force Base.
So this is first conflict, the Iraq conflict, in the last two decades or so where we are not seeing a lot of pictures of the flag-draped caskets coming home. While it’s true that we weren’t seeing them previously very much from Dover, the public probably was not aware but they were getting them from other bases. It is definitely being enforced system-wide throughout the military with more strictness until, at least until this past week when there was this flood of photos.
TERENCE SMITH: Including a very big photograph on the front page of your newspaper, The Washington Post.
Today, Bryan Whitman, what’s the problem with those photographs? In other words, what way to in what way do they possibly invade the privacy of the families or anything else?
BRYAN WHITMAN: Well, you know, we don’t — we should all be concerned that we don’t do anything at a time of grief for one of our fallen comrades, that we make it — that we make it more difficult for them.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think those pictures do?
BRYAN WHITMAN: I think that those pictures have a potential to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: How or why?
BRYAN WHITMAN: Well, because it is an invasion into their privacy as they have received word of a missing or a killed loved one. I think, you know, we should all take a look at this, perhaps in the shoes of the mother or the father who has lost a son or daughter or a husband who has lost a wife or a wife who has lost a husband.
Our service members don’t ask much of us. They ask to be well trained. They asked to be well equipped and they ask to be well led. And if something should happen to them, they ask that we take care of our families. And this policy is designed to take care of their families.
TERENCE SMITH: Is — I have to ask you this. Is the policy also designed to soften the impact of the casualties in the war?
BRYAN WHITMAN: No, I think that’s an unfair argument. I guess I’ll tell you why. I mean this conflict we put some 600 reporters out on the battlefield at the commencement of combat operations. Every time we have a casualty as a result of combat action, every time we have somebody that’s been killed, we put out a news release on that. The command puts out a release on that and then we, in the Defense Department, we follow that up with a release that gives the name of the individual, their hometown, their age, and we do that for every service member that’s killed in action. On the Defense Department Web site, daily we post the casualties.
So the idea that somehow we’re trying to not let the American people have the information about the cost of this war in terms of the human sacrifice, I think is not a true reflection of what the facts are.
TERENCE SMITH: But Dana Milbank, images are very powerful, and they have an impact. Is there concern from your reporting at the White House about the political impact of these images?
DANA MILBANK: Well, of course there has to be concern, and it is very true that the military has kept very up-to-date statistics about the casualties. They’ve not been hiding anything. But as you say, images matter a great deal. In fact, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton, said several years ago that in considering any foreign engagement, we have to consider the Dover test. And that is when the public sees flag draped caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base, are we still going to have the national stomach to continue with this?
So I don’t know the motives of the Bush administration or the earlier Bush administration or — in imposing this, but clearly the effect also is to soften the blow. I mean it’s no accident that President Bush is often out there talking about the importance of staying the course, and about the sacrifice, but he has not attended a funeral of a soldier who has fallen in Iraq.
Those images are very powerful. And the White House, if a lot of these images are coming out repeatedly, coupled with images of violence in Iraq without images showing progress, this could really undermine public support for the war. So we don’t know what the motives are. We know the effect is quite beneficial for the policy not to have them out there.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that a concern?
BRYAN WHITMAN: Well, Terry, we don’t have ceremonies at Dover, okay. There is a ritual that we go through and I think some of the photographs that you see demonstrate what we’ve always said, is that we, throughout the remains of the transfer process, we treat them with enormous respect and dignity.
TERENCE SMITH: And those photographs seem to say that.
BRYAN WHITMAN: But the appropriate place to really render honors, and to acknowledge the sacrifice that somebody has made is at the gravesite. And it’s at the gravesite because that’s where friends and family can be. That’s where members of the military unit can gather. Ands that’s where the media, with the permission of the family, can be there to cover…
TERENCE SMITH: I guess what’s different is at the gravesite it’s an individual ceremony, an individual exercise and is there not some impact when you see a whole plane load full of coffins?
BRYAN WHITMAN: And the family is then in a position to make that choice, whether or not they want media coverage or not. We have a responsibility to our service members broadly, and so we have to make policies that first and foremost go to support our families and our troops.
TERENCE SMITH: Dana Milbank, did you have any qualms at The Washington Post about running the photograph — any concern about the impact on the families that Bryan Whitman is talking about?
DANA MILBANK: Not really in this instance. The concern was to make sure permission was received because it wasn’t directly coming from the air force. It went through this Web site It is not at all like the case several weeks ago in Fallujah where you had the grisly images of bodies and you knew who they were. You knew their names. The relatives would be knowing it’s them. A lot of wrestling with that, decided to run images that weren’t easily identifiable.
This doesn’t really have that because actually in these images we have no idea who any of these soldiers were. I mean they were unknown soldiers to us. They didn’t come out with their names attached and obviously it’s not identifiable because they’re all in identical caskets with identical flags on top. So the respect for the family and contextualizing at the gravesite I think is the more powerful argument that military is making. Obviously it is hard to violate somebody’s privacy if the person is completely anonymous as they would be in this case.
BRYAN WHITMAN: Let’s imagine though just for a second that if there were ceremonies at Dover, and we did open them up for media coverage, think about the young husband or wife with a small family in the middle of the country or on the West Coast or anywhere. If there were to be ceremonies that were being covered by the media, they would feel compelled to be there to honor –
TERENCE SMITH: In fact the military has provided transportation in the past.
BRYAN WHITMAN: — to honor their loved ones. But you would then be asking them to remove themselves from perhaps the only support structure that they have in their community, and to travel a great distance to be there out of the sense of obligation.
What we really want to do is to move the remains on as quickly as possible so that they can be returned to their loved ones and so that they can have those ceremonies and they can have that recognition.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Bryan Whitman, Dana Milbank, thank you both very much.