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Yes, We Can Handle the Truth
by Jonathan Alter
May 3, 2003

The bottom line: this government doesn't trust the people. The last thing it wants to do now is fight an image war at home.

May 3 issue - Somewhere at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, a public-affairs officer is awaiting his fate. This still-unnamed but totally clueless representative of the Air Force Air Mobility Command apparently never got the memo saying that the Pentagon and White House wanted No Pictures (Got that? No Pictures!) of flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base from Iraq. He didn't quite understand that the American people cannot be trusted with absorbing the consequences of war. Had he just bucked that pesky Freedom of Information Act request one or two more levels up the chain of command, he would not now be contemplating his transfer to ... well, the 732d is in Alaska and the 729th no doubt has a place for him in the Azores.

The poor soul has plenty of company in newsrooms across the country, where red-faced editors are kicking themselves over one Russ Kick, a self-styled "information archeologist" from Tucson, Ariz. Through pluck and luck, Kick pried loose 361 moving Air Force photos that have already become iconic images of the Iraq war. Once again, the Internet, in this case a tiny site called thememoryhole.org, scooped major news organizations.

That's because this particular form of censorship, which began in 1991 under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney but was only sporadically enforced until Cheney returned to Washington, is now a priority. Body counts, especially when displayed so powerfully, are seen as a more potent threat than any militia in Fallujah. "The military is so concerned they will have to fight without the support of the American people that they will do anything they can to limit the release of information or images they fear would erode that support," says Robert Hodierne, senior managing editor of Army Times Publishing.

Anything. A woman working for a contractor in Iraq was fired in a separate incident for sending similar photos of caskets to the press. She got off easy. Should anyone in the military try that, Hodierne says, he would likely be court-martialed and sent to the brig.

This hard-line PR thinking is a legacy of Vietnam, where the military drew the lesson that pictures of body bags in the "living-room war" were what sapped the will of the American people to keep fighting. It's one of history's great oversimplifications. In fact, the public accepted thousands of Vietnam casualties for years without much complaint until the futility of the war became obvious. It's true that when broad strategic goals are personalized in unforgettable tragic images, the policy suffers. So policymakers look for excuses to control the images.

But "privacy" and "respect for the families" are fig leaves. The caskets had no names on them, so no one's privacy could possibly have been invaded. If broader national security ("America is at war") is the excuse, how long does that last? The war on terror could go on for a generation.

It's true that many (though hardly all) families of the dead‹being on the military side of the great military/media cultural divide‹support the policy. But this would carry more weight if accommodating families were truly the Pentagon's aim. It isn't. For a year now, according to the Army Times, the military has put every obstacle possible in the way of family members who want to go to Dover to receive their loved ones. One family specifically asked for media coverage of a burial at Arlington. Request denied.

The bottom line is that this government doesn't trust the people. It didn't trust them with the real reasons for going to war or the price tag. It doesn't want to fight an image war at home when the United States is already losing that fight in the Arab world. But it's patronizing to assume that Americans won't bear the cost of war if the cause is just. They are bearing that cost so far, as President Bush's healthy poll numbers amid a week of bad news attests. The same folks who, often rightly, accuse liberals of fostering a "nanny state" that treats the public like helpless children are now doing the same. They think "Joe Public," as Bush calls him in Bob Woodward's new book, can't handle the truth.

Of course nowadays everything comes out eventually, especially when someone is trying to suppress it. The next time a large number of bodies are shipped home at once, Air Force photographers won't risk recording the event for history (they'll be kept busy shooting hangars, mess halls‹anything but the ultimate sacrifice). But other sources could emerge. The families of dead soldiers who want to go to Dover, Dela., cannot be denied for long. They can‹and should‹be protected from a gaggle of noisy media, but not from their own reaction to perhaps the most emotional experience of their lives. Some mourners who lost a father, brother or daughter will take pictures; a few may post them on the Internet. And no one will be able to throw them in the brig.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted: May 12, 2004


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