Recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates discussed and then announcedthat the U.S. government was going to reverse an 18-year policy on banning photographs of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. service people who have died overseas arriving at Dover Air Force base. The ban was controversial. Many families of service people supported it because they felt that having media present, especially video and still photographers, would be an intrusion on their privacy. Other families advocated allowing pictures to document the sacrifice of the fallen. (The event is one now seen in fiction, as in the HBO movie “Taking Chance.”)
Politically, the ban was perceived by opponents of the Iraq war as a way to hide the cost of the conflict from the American people. War supporters argued that the ban was more about respect for families. The new policy seems to be to allow families to state their preference concerning media presence. Complications that might arise will stem from the fact that often multiple coffins are delivered at the same time.
It will also be interesting to see if the policy changes once American casualties escalate due to increased fighting in Afghanistan.
In any case, the policy is one about which people of good will can disagree. I’ll add one further observation about why the ban probably has been overturned: There is a recognition, albeit one slow in coming, in the Pentagon and now in a White House that is much more new media-savvy, that with cell phone cameras, digital photographs, and YouTube, it is impossible to limit picture-taking to what used to be called “the media.” Perhaps the new policy is an acknowledgment that, whereas once upon a time you could censor the press, now you can’t censor everyone.
Some of my previous writings about war imagery:
David D. Perlmutter. “Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs.” Orbis, 49(1) 2005: 109-122.
David D. Perlmutter. Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyberage. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.
David D. Perlmutter. Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Framing Icons of Outrage in International Crises. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.
Originally posted March 2, 2009 at PolicyByBlog
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