We Are a Nation at War and…

we should behave like one.  By now most of you are aware that the new administration has lifted the ban on photographing the coffins of the Iraq war dead.  I agree with the general outline of the policy and never understood the Bush Administration’s position.  It seemed to me to fall in line with everything else they did to hide the realities of war from the general public, from the president telling us to express our patriotism by going shopping to their failure to include the financial cost of war in their budgets.  One of the things that gives the Civil War its lasting significance is the memory of its dead.  It prevents many of us from looking away and it is the photographs that constitute that visceral connection.  The same can be said for other wars such as WWII and Vietnam.  I fear that in future years we will look past the sacrifices of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead because those connections were not allowed to properly develop in a free society.

33 responses... add one

I have never understood the big deal about photpgraphs of coffins in the first place. I also dont understand the argument that showing coffins somehow makes one understand the sacrifices that have been made. It just sounds like alot of political mumbo jumbo. In this age of mass media you can look up the names and photos of everyone who has been killed and the location they are from. I have done this for several years. Americans are just to lazy to do it and need to be spoonfeed by the talking heads. Its my understanding that the bodies in the metal containers are straight off the battlefileld and that they are simply being moved to the mortuary where they are to be cleaned and prepared for the family.
If you really want to show the horror of war you would show dead Americans on the battlefield. Thats something I would not support but if your serios about showing the true cost thats what would have to be done. We Americans like to only show the enemy dead. Even during the Civil War most of the photos I have seen are of Confederate dead.

Good points Richard, but my point is that the act of hiding coffins from the general public is part of a bigger story or an intention on the part of the government to minimize our identification with the hard realities of battle. I agree entirely that it is quite easy to find the war online, but when our government intentionally tries to limit our access it sets the wrong tone.

Interestingly, the mortuaries for U.S. soldiers are located on the airbases, while in Canada the bodies are driven along the highway to a facility. It has become traditional for Canadians to line the highways to show their respect for the fallen. That seems to be a fitting gesture. Thanks for the comment.

I understand the point made by the Bush administration with regard to the coffins. I had some friends come home from Somalia that way. The press turned it into a circus. The problem is not so much the administration hiding things from us, but rather the media choosing to use what should be a solemn occasion into a grandstand. During World War II, photos of coffins were quite respectfully shown. After Vietnam, it was clear if there were a dollar in it, the media would take it for a ride. As such, the military and the leaders of the military (i.e. the President) have an obligation to ensure the respect due to a fallen service member, and the privacy of the families. No service member’s body or coffin should be used as some feature story item. That’s not why they served.

As for the worn out argument the government is trying to “hide the cost of the war,” that is difficult to believe in light of the facts. Two years ago when the debate was at fever pitch, nightly news on all networks led with the “as of today” sum of total US deaths in Iraq. Several networks opted to run photos of all the deceased. Nobody was trying to limit the reporting of those numbers. In fact, DoD did a lot to assist in that reporting, by way of freely and openly offering the facts. Instead what has been missing is proper perspective of those numbers.

I’ve been on the ugly side of these events. I’ve seen it up close. And if I had my way, there would be no cameras within 2000 yards of a coffin returning a service member from his final duty. Instead, all within a half mile would be required to stand and pause for a moment of silence as he or she passes. It is one thing to remember and recognize the fallen. It is another thing entirely to try to use those “numbers” in some argument, after the fact, against military action.

Should we really wish to go down this route, perhaps in the spirit of fairness and honest reporting, for every photo run of the flag draped coffins, the media would be required to run a photo of an unmarked grave from the Saddam years.

Craig,

I respect your perspective on this issue, but we are going to have to agree to disagree. Unfortunately, you are right in assuming that the media would make political hash or sensationalize the fallen, but in a free society that is to be expected. I have to believe that just as many, if not more, Americans would show the utmost respect and deference to images of those coffins. It seems to me the government has already politicized it by limiting the media’s access. As I understand the new policy, family members can choose to keep the medial spotlight out. That seems about right to me. At the same time our government should not be perceived as hiding the price of war – either its human or financial cost.

Larry,

I don’t know about distribution beyond the major exhibits that took place during the war itself. It’s an interesting question.

Kevin,
I guess the statement that you say here that smacks the most is “At the same time our government should not be perceived as hiding the price of war….”

Nothing is further from the truth. Our government has not hidden the price of this war, particularly with regard to the human cost. We know to a person exactly how many have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. So how can you dare say our government can even be perceived as hiding the facts in this regard?

The policy of “no photographs” has nothing to do with hiding the cost of war. It has everything to do with protecting the honor and reputation of those who have fallen, and the privacy of the families these solders are returned to. That’s it, no hidden agendas. No secret deals. Can you provide a SINGLE source that shows us otherwise?

Craig.

I don’t see how you can seriously suggest that the Bush administration’s policy on photographing coffins has nothing to with hiding the price of war. They could easily have instated a policy that gives families the option of allowing media coverage. That said, I am not going to pursue this any further. My guess is that we see this issue from very different perspectives. As always, I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

There is too much to say here and I don’t want to sully your blog with my ranting. Suffice it to say I can not disagree more with your position. Allowing the media to photograph the remains of our fallen soldiers gives some quarters more ammunition to attack the memory of them and their brothers and sisters in arms who are still in the field.

This isn’t a cost discussion. It’s a moral discussion.

Wayne,

I appreciate the thought, but as your comment stands I have no idea what to make of it. Keep in mind that many of the families of the fallen support this new plan and have been calling for it from the beginning. This is not simply a debate between the families and the media or one of giving more “ammunition” to the enemy” – whatever that means.

To respond to Larry Cebula’s question, yes the images of Civil War dead were a brisk business for Brady and others during the war. Brady’s first exhibit of such prints in October 1862 entitled “The Dead of Antietam” was met with a massive audience. A reporter from the New York Times wrote a review of the show stating, “The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee… Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.” We must remember also that photography was in its infancy and at that time reproductions of them in newspapers and other print media was impossible. One would have to visit a gallery to view them as “art”. Actual prints were available for sale and the public did buy them up.
Responding to Richard Phillips, I will offer that by the time photographers gained access to the battlefields during the Civil War there had elapsed sufficient time for Union burial crews to have done their work, leaving the Confederate dead till last. Gettysburg is one of the exceptions due to the vastness of the field, but even there the concentration of images does depict mostly the southern dead.
In the final year of the war, the campaigns began to move so fast that rarely were any of the dead afforded proper burial until after April 1865 and the war’s end. The dead of the Wilderness were not gathered until June of 1865 by burial crews that roamed the terrain and collected the decomposed remains into two special cemeteries. Even here the concentration was on northern dead while the bleached bones of their southern counterparts remained exposed until tended to by local citizen contractors.
In April 1866, Union Surgeon Reed Bontecou traveled to the Wilderness with the intent on gathering as forensic specimens, the skulls of Confederate dead. This collection remains today in the file drawers of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
I have recently had an article published in Civil War Time’s April issue regarding that journey and the photographic series produced from it. Within the year I should have a book length manuscript on this subject ready for publication. I have been working on this project since late summer 2004.

John,

Thanks for the comment. I knew about the initial Antietam exhibits, but wasn’t so sure about subsequent showings. Sounds like an interesting project. Good luck with getting it published.

Paul Fussell’s “Wartime,” about the experience of WW II, has an informative section on the unwritten rules around showing the dead from that war, rules designed, in his opinion, to shield the public from the reality of the war. It’s interesting to compare that ethos with Civil War photographers supposedly tugging bodies into more photogenic poses and placing prop rifles.

I’m not sure about the “posing” thing, which I’ve read in several places. What’s the evidence? I’m pretty sure none of the people espousing it ever tried to drag a decomposing corpse anywhere.

This post and the comments regarding it are very insightful, Kevin, and you, and each commenter, all make valid arguments. I am from the generation in which the most important number for a young man graduating from high school was not his SAT score, but his draft number. There is no doubt that the images of war and death that flooded the nightly news during the Vietnam War helped to bring about the end to the war, whether you think the war should have been fought to begin with, or not. Most in the media at that time were committed journalists. There were opportunists, too, however, and the coverage of the Vietnam War did seem to mark a time when the gratuitous showing of violence just for the sake of showing it began in earnest. Just recently a Vietnam vet friend of mine told me about a clip that is on the Internet from the war that is off the charts and that does open up old wounds by the sheer callous, voyeuristic nature of displaying such a clip. (I will not give the clip credence by even describing it. Suffice it to say that it is outrageously disrespectful and represents a moment of actual death, as, of course, does the Zapruder film, the casual showing of which–as if the film depicts just another day in the life of the nation–shows just how coarse and callous our society has become ) These issues aside, the point here is not political. The media and the Obama administration do not have to push an agenda to help stop the Iraqi war; the Iraqi government itself wants the US out of the country. I just hope that we withdraw correctly, and I believe that we will. By correctly, I mean in a way that preserves the dignity of the soldiers who fought and died, as well as the safety and dignity of the Iraqi men and women whom we will leave behind. Remember the Vietnamese civilians who were slaughtered when we left Vietnam? Remember the US soldiers who came back home to taunts and slurs? Remember the young men who didn’t make it back? The Vietnamese women and children who were killed? The carpet bombing? The GIs who later died from exposure to agent orange? Remember? I do. And I am sure many of your readers do as well. Then there are all of the wars that the US has fought since Vietnam that we need to remember, too, and to honor the fallen, as has been pointed out in this post. I do not believe that President Obama is going to allow a repeat of the Vietnam experience, and we, as a nation, should not either. Please remember our vets when they come home. PTSD is a real illness. Readjusting to civilian life is not easy. No war ends just because governments say they do. Wars go on and on and on for the men and women who fight them, long after the last bullet is fired, or treaty or ceasefire agreement signed. Our vets will need our support. Also, if you are a veteran, visit your local VFW, or go to a local pow wow some day. At most pow wows, veterans from all wars are asked to come into the dance circle and are honored for their service as warriors. This is always such a moving experience for both the veterans in the dance circle, and the onlookers beyond it who honor the veterans. It is also a wonderful celebration of our history, on so many levels. Thanks, Kevin.

Craig,

By the way, did you really have to delete my blog link over this? Pretty lame!

Kevin,

I didn’t delete your link off my blog, rather I moved it to another section. If you disagree with the selection, you are invited to comment on it over on my blog.

I believe you said above you didn’t want to discuss this further.

Craig.

Craig,

I welcome and encourage you to say whatever you want on my site and because we disagree you go ahead and move my link to “Non-Civil War Blogs”? What a JACKASS thing to do.

I’ll be a bit more explicit then. Sherree talked about the callous nature of our society today. I don’t remember much first hand of the Vietnam war. I do know what I have read and heard from vets of the war. How they were exploited and slandered when they returned. How the Winter Soldier hearings depicted them as uncontrolled barbarians. The wounded of Vietnam and the GWoT have been exploited horribly by folks saying they were injured for nothing and “Bush Lied, People Died” with pictures of the wounded. I mention all this to demonstrate what I meant in the comment by “some quarters”.

Photographs of our fallen warriors should not be used to win cheap political points and that’s exactly what will happen and has happened. I fully respect the right of folks to express themselves however they see fit. There is a line of “taste” that folks should be conscious of and I’m afraid that in the callous nature of today’s society, as Sheree so eloquently put it, that line has been completely obliterated. Why give them more pictures (ammunition) to use against our warriors?

Okay…I’m done ranting. ;) Generally I love your blog Kevin. You just touched a nerve with this one.

Wayne,

Thanks for elaborating. I don’t necessarily disagree with you. That said, war is a political act and so it is inevitable that the service of soldiers will become part of the bigger debate. Of course, we should resist reducing them to pawns that are simply manipulated with little interest in their well-being. You clearly expressed one side of this debate, but it seems to me there are just as many people/organizations who have nothing but the best intentions when it came to pushing for this revision in policy, including the families of servicemen and the servicemen and women themselves. I think these are important questions.

Kevin,
Is there really a need for name calling in all this?

I’ve simply asked you to elaborate and provide more sources for your inference that the past administration purposely hid the facts about the cost of the war. Again, for the record let me say what is in support of my position:

1. A DoD wide policy was implemented concerning the proper handling of returning remains of service members killed while overseas. That policy is very clear in regard to the purpose. It does not say the purpose is, as you state, to hide the cost of any war from the public, or to shield the public from images that may be embarrassing to the administration. It DOES say that media will be screened and cameras kept away out of respect for the deceased.

2. I can trace that policy at least to my time of service with a memo was sent out from the desk of then General Colin Powell. The memo referenced executive orders supporting the policy. Of course, George Bush was not president at that time. That was Bill Clinton.

3. We all know exactly how many solders have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. To the individual number. We also have lists of every service member who has fallen. The only names “shielded” are those deaths from recent months, which are withheld out of respect for the family until all arrangements are complete. (and that is a policy that dates at least to the Vietnam War if not earlier.)

Now I’ll add in one speculation on my part. Something that “doesn’t make much sense” if you will. The Bush administration did much to kindle the memories of 9-11 in the public mind. The images of the attack played prominently in many displays, and was mentioned time and again in speeches. It would make sense for the administration to link those deaths in Iraq to 9-11, since after all that was one of the causes for the Iraq war. So your premise about hiding the cost of war loses it logic in that light.

And even more to the point, is there anyone in America today that does not know we are in a war in Iraq? Or that we have lost service members over there? So how can that be considered “hiding the true cost of the war” if it is a commonly known set of facts? Again, Kevin, all I ask is for you to actually support, with something factual, your stance that this “policy” was enacted to blind the American public from the war’s cost.

As for moving your blog to “non-CW” well, again facts are facts. You seem to deviate a lot from the Civil War here. I’m fond of reconstruction, labor relations, and some of the “new South” topics myself. But I chose not to throw a blanket of “Civil War” over them. But that’s my taxonomy and don’t expect you to embrace it as your own.

I’ll stop my comment there and not go into personalities.

Craig.

Well, you seemed to have no problem with my blog in your Civil War category before this little exchange. Do what you want, but it seems juvenile to say the least.

The present policy goes back to 1991 (George W. Bush was the president), and yes, the reasons given by the military have to do with the protection and concern with families. As I stated over and over, I understand that. However, that is not the end of the story. Understanding why governments do what they do does not begin and end with their official statements. Many of the families of the fallen, as well as those who are against this war have rightfully (IMHO) interpreted its continuation as an attempt to shield the human cost of the war from the general public. I am not arguing for some kind of conspiracy theory here. Of course, most people know there is a war in Iraq and of course we’ve seen horrific footage throughout, but that was never my point. I am simply suggesting that such a blanket policy during war sends the wrong signal. That is not a statement of fact, but one of perception/interpretation. I never suggested otherwise. If you have a problem with this position than deal with it. I am through explaining myself to you.

I’m sure they had the best of intentions when crafting this policy change. I just fear there are pavers on the way to Hades already dipping their trowels into this bit of mortar.

Okay..I’m done. No REALLY…I’m done this time. ;)

To be honest, I’m not really sure where I stand on this issue. When looking at pictures of Civil War dead, it doesn’t really impact me much, even though there are many gruesome pictures of decaying men sprawled throughout the battlefields. Yet when confronted with a picture of American dead from Iraq and Afganistan–even though it is a picture of just the coffins–I feel chills go up my spine and I have to look away after just a second. Paradoxically, it feels almost to beautiful and sacred and awful (in the sense of filling one with awe) for me to look at those pictures. I feel I don’t deserve to look at photos of flag-draped coffins; what have I done to deserve that sacred honor? And yet at the same time, it does remind me of the price of war, and even greater, the price of freedom; it reminds me that these men and women died, so that I could do something so trivial as to go out to the movies with my friends on a Saturday night and not have to fear for my safety. And it motivates me all the more to live a life that is worthy of the sacrifice that our soldiers have made; to live the life that they now won’t be able to live. That is such an awesome responsibility and one that every American needs to remember. Our soldiers have given up their lives, exchanged their right to live for ours; and it is our duty to them to live what they couldn’t live, to live in a way that honors and respects what they did.

Writing out these thoughts has helped me to clarify my thinking on the photo controversy, although I haven’t cemented my position in stone, not by a long shot. Of course, there are always going to be those people, on both ends of the political spectrum, who would use the photos for their own agendas; what sick and revolting and disgusting behavior! But for the vast majority of Americans, I think every once in a while, a photo like the one you posted at the beginning of this post would be a sobering reminder for us and make us more thankful for our Armed Forces and what they have given us. Of course, the family members of each serviceperson pictured would have to give their permission, and if these photos were shown frequently, it would lose its impact. But with the short-term memory of American culture, we need to be reminded–regardless of our political views–of the price of freedom.

Crystal,

I couldn’t agree more. It seems to me you hit the nail on the head in pointing out that for most Americans the images of the draped coffins serves as a reminder of the price of freedom. These images, specifically function in a way that no other image can, which was my point all along. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this.

I think I raised an interesting question for myself in my last post: why is it that I’m not bothered as much when I view pictures of Civil War dead (often not in coffins, but their actual bodies), as when I view pictures of American dead from Iraq and Afghanistan? I think maybe it is because of the time difference; the Civil War was more than 150 years ago, and I have no personal connection to that time, whereas now I am currently living through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and it’s directly connected to my present and future. Once again, another topic related to memory; the further back we have to reach to remember something, the less of an impact that event may have on us.

The historian, Bernard Bailyn, suggests that the reason is because we no longer have a stake in the outcome. Of course, in the context of the Civil War, the line between present and past is not always so clearly delineated. Thanks again.

As a (not very competant) Soldier and an OEF veteran–that’s “Operation Enduring Freedom” to you longhaired folk (kidding!), I’m all for releasing photos like these to the media. The burden of armed conflict is more disproportionately borne today than at probably any other time in history. Napoleon’s arrogant dismissal of the English could easily apply to 21st century Americans, for we are “a nation of shopkeepers” and relatively few have any kind of personal stake in our adventures overseas. (Just 1 in every 1,300 New Yorkers is serving in the military, and “the military” IMHO is a broad term indeed.)

However, remembrance of the dead is vital but it isn’t enough. The government has done a lamentably poor job of publicizing the human element in war. Yes, updates to the casualty lists are regularly posted, but where are the citations for Silver Stars and other awards to servicemen? Even soldiers’ blogs, many of them well-written and inspiring, have been ruthlessly purged thanks to the high command’s paranoid obsession with “op-sec.”

Our economic infrastructure, and the nature of modern conflict, ensure that scrap metal drives, “wheatless days” and conscription are relics of the past. I believe it’s only fair that all Americans, regardless of their “affiliations,” should have at least a small understanding of what it means to be at war.

This is a bit of a blanket response to reading some of the comments above. There is a difference between knowing there is a war and that people are dying, and witnessing the realities and consequences of the war. We learned that in Vietnam, and while the recent policy goes back to 1991, as Kevin pointed out, those who took this nation into war in Iraq had learned the lessons of Vietnam, at least those having to do with controlling the media and the images of war seen by the public, and utilized this policy among others to control those images. The war became an abstraction for too many Americans. In my opinion, when we go to war the real-life consequences of that war ought to be in the public’s face, so that we know what we, and those who act in our name, are doing. In a democratic nation, the consequences of our actions in the world ought not to be sanitized and kept from our view. If we consent to going to war, we ought to be willing to witness what we have wrought. We must confront the moral consequences of our actions, and it is made more difficult to do so when those actions become an abstraction. It is just too easy to cease being citizens and cease taking responsibility for the actions of our government. Finally, in my opinion, what is truly respectful is to recognize those who give their life in war, and be willing to witness their sacrifice upon their return. It is disrespectful, indeed shameful, in my opinion, not to bring them home in full public view.

Very thought provoking post, Kevin. I guess we all are a product of our respective generations to some degree. With news cycles running 24/7 now, rather than once a day with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley coming on the TV after a little Beethoven playing then zooming into a ferocious battle scene on the ground, I hope that the returning of our dead will be done with respect. You are correct that most Americans are respectful, and the views expressed here by your readers prove that. Also, I believe that President Obama made this decision for the right reasons. I just fear the media circus–and circus is the right word for what members of the media all too often do in reporting–as broader coverage of the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan is allowed given today’s technology. I agree with every point made by every person commenting here, even when the views expressed are totally contradictory, so this issue is a tough one. (For example, even though I fear the media circus, I also fear the sanitizing of war. The argument could be made that viewing the Gulf war from afar on CNN, which made the war seem not real, helped to make the waging of subsequent wars a much easier task ) The problem is not the American public, but the American media. Will journalists work to inform the public and to help us know the cost of war, or will they work toward perhaps winning a Pulitzer prize? I remember one very famous photograph taken by a journalist during the Vietnam war. The photograph captures the moment before the actual execution of a Vietnamese man as a gun is held to the man’s head. This photograph brings home the horror of war for certain. It also brings home the horror of the spectator of war, removed and protected from harm. Considering that photograph in later years, I often wondered why the journalist did not find some way to distract the executioner by throwing a rock at him or knocking the executioner’s hand up or finding a weapon and coming to the defense of the man who was about to be executed. It may have cost the journalist his life; but the journalist then would have truly known the cost of war. I agree with a comment made above. Military duty has become the duty of only a select part of the population. Maybe we should do what the Israelis do in order for all of us to really know what war is about. All Israelis must serve time in the military, both men and women (or at least they used to) That way every citizen knows that the job of protecting the nation belongs to all citizens of the nation.

Sherree, you won’t like this but I find your thoughts on that famous photograph to be rather naive. The image in question depicts a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietnamese guerilla. Maybe, just maybe, the American photographer felt he had no business interfering in a Vietnamese quarrel.

Also, combat bears little resemblance to Hollywood heroics. Gallant behavior like knocking the gun out of an angry general’s hand sounds easy from the comfort of a living room or office in 2009, but I’m willing to bet that the reality in 1968 Saigon was far different. And I think a combat cameraman during the Tet Offensive probably had a good grasp on “the cost of war.”

Again, Sherree, it’s probably inevitable that these remarks will offend you, but such was not my intention. I think the number of comments on this particular post shows that wartime death is an issue that we all feel strongly about.

Will, I am not in the least offended. I thank you for sharing your thoughts. My position is not naive, however. It is a position not only held by me, but by many veterans I know who were in combat and who indeed know the cost of war.

PS. Will, you are right about something in regard to this issue–my veteran friends don’t talk about throwing rocks or knocking guns out of the hands of angry generals; they are much more graphic in their descriptions and use language that I can’t use here, lol. The point that I was trying to make, and that my vet friends have taught me, is that there were men whose entire lives were defined by the war, and then there were men who were spectators. A combat journalist was at risk. That is true. But not at risk like the combat soldier in the field. Thank you for your kind words earlier in the thread. And thank you again for your comment in reference to my later comment. Don’t worry about offending me. I have a thick skin. Thanks, Kevin, as always, for hosting the conversation.

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