In his speech to the Congress (and the world) on Tuesday night, Barack Obama outlined many changes that he plans to make going forward. He touched on education and health care reform, and had even John McCain standing and applauding as he declared that he would end the war.
But one thing he said about the war stood out even from his prior speeches: “For seven years we’ve been a nation in war; no longer will we hide its price.”
This has many connotations, but one connection it draws is to the recent decision to allow the press to photograph flag-draped coffins returning from war. The price of the war can be ranked in dollars, but no matter the monetary cost placed on it, it pales in comparison to the price paid by those killed at war, American and Iraqi, soldier and civilian.The ban on photographing the human cost of war had been in place since the first President Bush’s Gulf War in 1991. According to the New York Times, the organization Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission opposed lifting the ban, citing respect for the soldiers who gave their lives. 64 percent of its members responded to an unscientific poll that they would have preferred the ban to remain in place.
“I am against the media being at Dover. As a mother of one of the Fallen, to have these photos used to turn Americans against our military and their mission would break my heart,” one mother said.
But not photographing the coffins was only one symptom of a pervasive problem since at least the beginning of the war in Iraq. Early on, we had Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, our heroes of the war, shaping the narrative in the proper direction. When those narratives slowly disintegrated under the weight of actual facts, the administration lost control.
As the wars have gone on, the stories are getting lost. Soldiers are killed, but aside from the occasional blogger who takes the time to list casualties individually (putting more effort in than former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had an automatic signature machine for letters to the families of soldiers killed at war), we hear less and less about the people still dying overseas.
The Associated Press paraphrased Ron Griffin, a father whose son Kyle died in Iraq in 2003, as saying that “changing the rule would just turn soldiers killed during war into anonymous numbers, and put unnecessary stress on families. The media should report on the soldiers and their personal memorials, not their coffins, he believes.”
Obama’s promises of transparency made this an ideal time to remove the ban, but the point Griffin raised is a good one. The servicepeople who gave their lives should indeed be remembered as people, not as anonymous numbers in a box, and it is thinking of them as humans that will actually bring home the real cost of war.
Former U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate, 2nd class, (AW) Philip Forrest notes that:
“I’m a combat vet. It’s who I am. If people don’t see coffins coming back, it’s just like America turning their backs on the identity of the soldiers or the military personnel. It’s not just them, it’s the whole community that they were in, and that community wants some type of recognition.”
Forrest pointed out that the military is a cross section of American society—Democrats and Republicans, people of many ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds, male and female, straight and gay. The servicemembers deserve to be remembered as people, but as a photographer and a sailor, Forrest believes that people need to see the pictures of what their military gives for them.
“I’m one of those people who is like, we have to show everything even though it’s not good. I’m not going to show pictures of dead people to kids, but when there is a war, people die. And most of those people happen to be innocent civilians, noncombatants. The world needs to know that. We don’t see enough of that,” Forrest said.
The Pentagon will now allow press to photograph the returning coffins if the families of the service members give their permission, a safe compromise for Obama and Defense Secretary Gates and one that shows respect for the families. As Forrest said, “You take pictures of dead Marines and stuff like that and the media eats it up, but then is it marginalizing what they died for, even if they didn’t believe in it?”
The administration should take pains to keep all of its promises of transparency on the wars, even as soldiers come home from Iraq and more are sent to Afghanistan. The American public needs to know not only the cost of war in dollars and national debt, but what happens to the people who go to fight. This includes not only photos of flag-draped coffins and funeral processions, but continued coverage of veterans issues for those who survive, as our technology has made it possible for soldiers who might have been in one of those coffins years ago to survive.
If we’re going to send soldiers to war, we should be able to face the results.