Pentagon Was Correct to Lift the Photo Ban on Military Coffins Returning Home

Photographing coffins of fallen service members lets us honor their return, argues Ron Milam.

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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"On behalf of a grateful nation" is a phrase that we who have worn the uniform of our country's military know may eventually be heard by our families and friends as they gather at our final resting place. The American flag draped over our coffin—stars above our left shoulder—will be folded with great dignity by an honor guard and handed to our loved ones. This burial ceremony is repeated hundreds of times a day as we bury our veterans of America's wars.

Nowhere in this emotional ceremony is there any reference to the fallen's political beliefs or to his or her views on war. Yet the ceremonies associated with the death of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines have somehow become politicized by those who may have an "agenda" regarding current wars. The Obama administration had asked for a review of the policy that banned the photographing of the coffins of servicemen and women as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base. I believe the lifting of this ban will allow those of us who sent them off to war to experience and honor their return through images provided by professional photographers.

Having experienced the death of my fellow soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, I am fully aware of the sacrifice that some have made in "unpopular" wars. As a military historian, I am bothered by the terms that we frequently use to describe such conflicts: limited war, police actions, counterinsurgencies, and "small" wars. These descriptions refer to wars in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These wars have received limited political and public support when compared with World War II. Administrations have responded to this by regulating access by the public to ceremonies that provide the evidence of the carnage caused by armed conflict. Our leaders seem to be concerned that we cannot "handle" the business of war, which is killing, and the death of our citizens.

The ban was established in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. However, it was lifted temporarily under special circumstances such as the bombing of the USS Cole and certain embassy bombings. Those incidents were not controversial, at least in the United States, and Americans were perceived as innocent victims of the attacks. Administrations desired that we witness the sacrifice of our fellow citizens and that the repatriation ceremony be seen by all of us.

The arguments against lifting the ban seem persuasive because they tug at our heartstrings if we are concerned about war. One argument is that the privacy concerns of the family must be protected. From the first evacuations in the war zone, through intermediary stops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, to Dover Air Force Base, and throughout the United States, the family's possession does not begin until receipt by a funeral director in the hometown of the deceased. Therefore, the soldier is technically still "on duty" and fulfilling the mission he or she was sent to accomplish. If leaders choose to deny the opportunity for our precious dead to complete the mission, then they are attempting to manipulate the citizenry's response to the consequences of war. Privacy concerns can be met by not allowing the photographing of families at repatriation ceremonies. Because Dover is a military base, control over unauthorized personnel should be manageable.

The other issue that appears to concern both supporters and critics of the current wars is how such photos would be used by activists to support their cause. Conventional wisdom holds that flag-draped coffins allow the "left," whoever that is, to exploit the repatriation ceremony to enhance its antiwar agenda. And conversely the "right," whoever that is, fears the left will distort the images to enhance its cause. In these days of Internet access and search engines that allow investigators and researchers to find images of almost everything, zealots can easily find photos to use in their attempts to sway public opinion. Does it improve the antiwar rhetoric if the C-17 cargo hold contains 20 flag-draped coffins? When efforts of our military and diplomats have succeeded in reducing the number of casualties to one or two, is the antiwar position less viable? And is it reasonable to allow Americans to witness the image of that reduction in casualties? I am not sure that I know what political statement the image of flag-draped coffins of America's fallen represents. If someone sees politics in that image, perhaps his or her idea of death and war is distorted.


Corrected on : Ron Milam
Vietnam vet, interim director of Texas Tech's Center for War and Diplomacy in the Post-Vietnam War Era.