FREE PRESS — In a reversal of an 18-year-old policy that critics said was hiding the
ultimate cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the press will now
be allowed to photograph the flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead
as their bodies are returned to the United States, reports the New York Times—but only if their
families agree.

The decision, which lifts a 1991 blanket ban on such photographs put in place by former President George H.W. Bush, chiefly affects coffins arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan that go through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
    The ban, which was renewed by the administration of George W. Bush
as recently as a year ago, was long a source of intense debate. The
military said the policy protected the privacy and dignity of families
of the dead. But others, including some of the families as well as Iraq
war opponents, said the ban sanitized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
by hiding from the public images of the ultimate cost.

    In the end, Mr.
Gates said, he came to the conclusion that “we should not presume to
make the decision for the families, we should let them make it.”

    Under the new policy, photographs will not be permitted of coffins if the families say no.

The pious and phony posturing persists. Among the unclear points at this juncture:

  • Since every one of the thousands of coffins returned through Dover looks exactly like every other one, does the family veto apply only to photos of individual coffins borne by military honor guards in relatively close-up view, or can one family, confident that its deceased relative is in one of the dozens of coffins shown massed in a cargo plane bay or a hangar, veto such a group shot as well?
  • Can one family in such situations veto the shot even if all other relevant families want it?
  • What really has been going on here—and continuing under the present policy—other than the government's cynical exploitation of service family grief as part of its campaign to delegitimize the role of the press throughout the Southwest Asia war for the past decade and a half?
  • What's next—no photos of Arlington or the Punchbowl if a surviving family can be persuaded to object?

The no-photos policy did not begin with the Bushes, but as Charles Paul Freund noted in a 2004 piece in Reason magazine, neither was it previously justified by some pretense of concern for "family privacy."

World War II, a singularly misperceived experience, offers telling
illustrations of many of the complexities involving both the control of war
images and the reaction to them. As author Roeder recounts, for the first
two years of that war there was not a single documentary image of American
death released to the public. This was a continuation of the policy adopted
during World War I, when the American government censored all such images
throughout the conflict.

The reason that Franklin Roosevelt followed Woodrow Wilson's censorship
example, it appears, is that FDR was uncertain of continued public support,
especially for the war in Europe. Until mid-1942, the war news was nearly all
bad, and a significant number of Americans thought an overextended U.S.
should have concentrated on Japan, which had attacked the country. Nearly a
third of the populace favored making some accommodation with Nazi Germany
and extricating the U.S. military from Europe. The administration feared
that images of the war's dead would demoralize the country, and further
erode support for the war's broad strategy. War photographers (who, like war
reporters, were actually in uniform) often had to send their unexposed rolls
of film to the Pentagon for processing.

By late 1943, however, FDR's administration and the military had completely
changed their minds. Americans, they decided, had by then become too
complacent about the war. Much of the war news had been positive, and the
government was worried about increasing work absenteeism. What Americans
needed, thought the state, was a display of military sacrifice; the Pentagon
quickly released hundreds of images of dead soldiers to remind civilians
that the war remained a deadly business still to be decided. As it happens,
many publications refused to publish the images; their editors feared such
pictures would "disturb" readers. However, some of the country's largest
circulation periodicals, such as Life magazine, did run them, and
they were widely seen.

Freund says both views may have missed the mark.

There is an obvious third proposition: Neither of these generalizations
about the effect of death imagery was necessarily correct. While there is
often a plain and unchanging personal meaning in such images of death, there
is no inevitable political meaning in them; rather, their political meaning
and impact can change according their context. The most important factor in
that context is probably not whether a given conflict appears to be going
well, but whether the viewer of such images believes the war's cause to be
just, and its pursuit purposeful. If you believe that about the Iraq war,
then you probably interpret the coffin images a certain way; if you don't,
you probably see a different picture.