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Brett Coomer/AP

Policy Changes on Photographing Military Coffins

February 27, 2009 12:58 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
In a decision some say will remind people of the human cost of war, the Obama administration reversed a ban on media photos of military caskets returning from Iraq.

A Decision for Families

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Families of deceased servicemen and women will now have the option to decide whether they want the media to photograph the return of their loved one’s casket to the United States.

Such photos have been banned for the last 18 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We should not presume to make the decision for the families—we should actually let them make it,” the Associated Press reported.

President Barack Obama had asked Gates to review media coverage of deceased individuals returning to Dover Air Force Base. The new policy is similar to one used at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Background: The photo ban

All photos showing military caskets were banned in 1991. Supporters of the idea said it protected the privacy of grieving families but critics argued that doing so “hides the human cost of war.” Daniel Murphy, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, said in a Newsday article, “We would not have minded had the press been there to welcome him back to the United States.” Murphy continued, “Some families felt they were sneaking their loved ones back into the United States and not giving them the honor and respect of being welcomed back as heroes.”

In 2005, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a freedom of information lawsuit by University of Delaware journalism professor Ralph Begleiter and the National Security Archive had prompted the Pentagon to release some photographs of military caskets from the Iraq war. The public’s first look at flag-draped caskets came when a group of photos was “mistakenly released” in April 2004, the Post-Intelligencer quoted the Pentagon as saying.

Related Topic: Pictures of war

The United States Civil War brought the first pictures of war casualties with the aid of photographer Mathew Brady, according to Tufts Magazine. The publication quoted an editorial from The New York Times about one of Brady’s exhibits, saying, “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 dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. …These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of the magnifying-glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches.”

On Sept. 20, 1943, Life magazine ran a photograph of three American soldiers dead on a beach in Papua New Guinea and asked the question, “Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore?” The publication explained, “words are never enough . . . words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens.” They were also following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wishes on publicizing World War II. He had stopped banning photos of military casualties because he felt Americans had grown too complacent about the events taking place.
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