Ban on Photographing Military Coffins Protected Grieving Families from Media

The ban protects grieving families from a media maelstrom, says Bill Martel.

In this undated picture made by the US Department of Defense, flag-draped coffins of US war casualties are handled by fellow soldiers in Dover, Del. A website published photographs of American war dead arriving at the nation's largest military mortuary from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a NASA spokesman said that at least 18 rows of photos on the site were of the Columbia astronauts. The photographs were released to First Amendment activist Russ Kick, who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

In this undated picture made by the US Department of Defense, flag-draped coffins of US war casualties are handled by fellow soldiers in Dover, Del.

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The ban on photographing soldiers' coffins as they return to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was not simply about images but also about shielding grief-stricken military families from a media maelstrom. It was not an issue of freedom of the press but one of respect and one of fairness.

Nevertheless, pressure built in Washington to change the old policy, which dated to 1991. On Jan. 7, 2009, Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, introduced House Resolution 269, the "Fallen Hero Commemoration Act." This bill called for "the Department of Defense to grant access to accredited members of the media when the remains of members of the Armed Forces arrive at military installations in the United States."

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered a review of the issue, and an announcement of the Pentagon's conclusions came Thursday when Gates announced that media coverage would be allowed in cases where families give permission.

Critics of the ban argued that there are several benefits to be gained by allowing the media to photograph the coffins. For example, they argued that lift-ing the ban would affirm the public's right to know, a right that Americans deeply value. In ad-dition, such photographs would show the American people the human cost of war.

Some also argued that it would prevent the Department of Defense from manipulating public opinion by suppressing images of the human cost of war. Finally, the ban was such a deeply polarizing and emotionally charged issue in American society that lifting it might start to heal the rift between those who legitimately differ over this policy.

These are all perfectly sensible arguments, made by reasonable people. But despite growing momentum that culminated in the lifting of the ban, there were several reasons to oppose such a reverse in policy.

First, the solemn act of bringing home our military dead will become sensationalized. We inevitably will see private family moments turned into public events.

The act of returning those who have died in war is known in U.S. military parlance as the "dignified transfer of remains." However, the very act of photographing the coffins of our fallen will be part and parcel of a classic public spectacle—featuring grieving military families who will be overwhelmed by media coverage.

Second, each family's right to privacy in this moment will be immediately and irrevocably sacrificed. We are obligated to honor those who have fallen in war in a way that preserves each military family's right to privacy. Otherwise, we risk exploiting their loss.

Military families deserve privacy, including the right to decide whether to allow the public to intrude, so including the family-permission clause helps some. Simply lifting the ban outright would have hurt families who are caught in the middle of searing pain and grief.

Furthermore, our obligation to put families first in protecting their privacy must trump the public's right to see the coffins of our war dead. Compassion for military families must outweigh well-intentioned arguments that defend the public's right to know.

The challenge for policymakers is to artfully balance what is in the best interests of democratic governance with compassion for those whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice in war. In such moments, we must err on the side of protecting those who bear the greatest burden.

Third, some argue that one reason for lifting the ban is to make political statements about the costs of war. The public's right to see photographs of soldiers' coffins—so that, as one reporter said to President Obama, they can "see the full human cost of war"—seems hollow in the face of private grief. If people want to understand the costs of war, they can visit Arlington National Cemetery, where 300,000 are buried—or read newspapers that routinely list names of the dead.

Images of grief-stricken military families will make powerful statements about war's human toll. Many were rightly offended when activists exploited military funerals for political purposes. Many members of the military have objected to having their images used for antiwar messages. How will this be any different?

Bill Martel
Associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University