Late last week, images of flag-draped caskets containing dead soldiers returning from Iraq were released by the Air Force, and they made their way to the Web on Thursday. The roughly 350 pictures became the first glimpses of American casualties to be widely distributed since the war in Iraq began, and their circulation has again raised the debate about whether or not images of casualties should be allowed in media coverage.
Prior to the release, the Bush administration and Department of Defense had strictly enforced a 13-year-old ban on showing the coffins of military dead, citing privacy concerns on behalf of the soldiers' families. The ban also prohibits the media from capturing any images at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the location where overseas casualties arrive.
The media have been voluntarily complying with the Department of Defense's request to not publicize such photos. But as the number of casualties in Iraq has been mounting, there has been increased pressure from the media to drop the ban. Many media representatives feel that the images are a powerful way to communicate the impact of the war to the American public.
The Air Force released the photos — which the Air Force itself had shot — to Russ Kick, operator of a Web site called the Memory Hole after he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to have the photos released. Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies are generally required to disclose records requested in writing by any person.
Many major news organizations expressed surprise that the Department of Defense was in possession of such photos. The deputy managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle has said that his paper would have filed a FOIA request for the photos much earlier had he known of their existence.
The widespread circulation of the photos comes one day after the Pentagon fired two military contractors in Kuwait for circulating pictures of military casualties. Tami Silicio and her husband, David Landry, were responsible for a photo of military coffins that was published last Sunday by The Seattle Times. Silico and Landry claim that their actions were not an anti-war statement, but a way of reassuring the families of deceased soldiers that their remains were being treated with respect.
The ban on media coverage of the returning remains of soldiers killed overseas began during the first Gulf War. "The current policy goes back to 1991," Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Molino told reporters on Thursday. "It's a policy that reflects what the families have told us they would like by way of the treatment of remains of the loved ones who have made that sacrifice," a sentiment that has been supported by the National Military Family Association.
However, critics suspect that the ban has its origins in an incident involving the president during the first Gulf War. Television networks used a split screen to air footage of returning coffins during a press conference held in 1991 by President George Bush. The elder Bush was allegedly very angered, as he was seen laughing at one point as the other side of the screen showed the unloading of military coffins.
There is no word on whether more photos will be released or whether the media will be granted increased access to images of American servicemen and servicewomen coming home in caskets. The ban is still subject to further challenges from other citizens and media outlets.
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out Choose or Lose.