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