The Pentagon and Pictures of Soldiers’ Coffins

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Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, announced on Thursday that the Pentagon will be lifting the ban on media images of soldiers’ coffins as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan, so long as the affected families agree to the pictures. A Pentagon working group still has to settle details of how permission will be granted. I would assume one of those details will be how to deal with families who are divided on the question.

How much will this matter? It’s a change for the better but it matters more I think that photojournalists have been thwarted repeatedly from showing the costs of the Iraq war, not just at Dover Air Force Base where the coffins of the war dead arrive.

Photographs of war dead and wounded have been an issue from the time of Civil War. Timothy O’Sullivan, one of Mathew Brady’s best photographers, took one of the most graphic pictures of that war, “The Harvest of Death”, a scene of bloated Union corpses strewn across the battlefield at Gettysburg. You can almost hear the flies buzz. In a time before picture magazines, television and the Internet, battlefield photos like that one still made their way into homes, or at least the homes that could afford them, by way of photo album books. (“Album books” because it wasn’t possible until later in the 19th century to print photos and text on the same page.)

By the beginning of World War II, when inexpensive photo magazines meant that pictures were getting into a lot more homes, the Roosevelt administration was censoring all photos of war dead. Life magazine pushed to have the White House reverse its policies and by 1943 they did. Life published one of the first, a photo of three dead G.I.’s on a beach in New Guinea, though two of the corpses were face down and the third was in a position that hid his face. The magazine ran a text with that picture that I think made exactly the right point. “Why print these pictures? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid?” Then it came to its own conclusion. “The reason is that words are never enough.”

The ban on coffin pictures was imposed in 1991, just before the start of the first Gulf War, by George H.W. Bush. He had to know that photos of military coffins had been common during the Vietnam War — and not just coffins but pictures of wounded soldiers, like the great pictures by Larry Burrows, who was killed in the war himself — and that pictures like that certainly did nothing to make the war more popular. Bush was also still smarting from an incident two years earlier when a tv network juxtaposed simultaneous images of him smiling and joking with reporters with footage of coffins coming back from the invasion of Panama. That was a juxtaposition, by the way, that always struck me as a cheap shot. The fact that you can find the president smiling at any given time of the day tells you nothing about whether a military action is justified or not. But the coffin photo ban was still uncalled for.

The Pentagon is lifting this rule just as the Iraq war is winding down. But the war in Afghanistan goes on. That war hasn’t so far suffered the same loss of public support, for the good reason that it was more justified in the first place — not a feckless “war of choice” like Iraq but a response to a clear threat emanating from that country. So long as the Afghan war continues to make sense — a more complicated question — I don’t think allowing coffin pictures will turn public opinion against it anymore than banning them kept the Iraq War from losing support. Pictures of the sacrifices necessary for a justifiable war won’t make people turn their backs on it. They didn’t do that during World War II. That’s because pictures don’t make up our minds for us. They don’t tell us the answers and we don’t expect them to. What they tell us is why the questions are important.