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Ghosts

Americans keep dying in Iraq, but Pentagon policy and media fatigue obscure the full picture.

January 17, 2008

As of Wednesday, 3,915 U.S. service members had been killed in Iraq. You may not have heard about this, because it isn't a nice, round, milestone-type figure -- unlike, say, 2,000, a number that inspired headlines across the country when that body count was reached in 2005.

Another thing you probably haven't seen lately is images like the front-page photograph in Wednesday's Times, which showed the flag-draped coffin of Army Sgt. David J. Hart of Lake View Terrace as it arrived on an airport tarmac. Such images are rare, partly because of a media tendency to see the commonplace as unworthy of coverage and partly because of a calculated effort by the Bush administration to prevent the American people from seeing them.

Wednesday's photograph was possible because Hart's body was flown into Long Beach Airport rather than a military facility, where media photographers are forbidden from chronicling the ongoing human cost of the Iraq war. A lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act forced the Pentagon in 2005 to release more than 700 pictures of coffins and honor guard ceremonies that were taken by military photographers, but it did nothing to ease the 1991 ban on media coverage of returning casualties.

You also may not have heard that 2007 was the deadliest year yet for U.S. troops in Iraq: 899 lost their lives, surpassing the previous high of 850 in 2004. A few newspaper and TV websites continue to list casualties, but these have nowhere near the effect of "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel's 2004 recitation of the names of the then-721 dead. The Tyndall Report, which monitors network news broadcasts, shows that less time was devoted to Iraq coverage in 2007 than in any previous year of the conflict.

The war remains an important issue in the presidential campaign, but candidates from both parties have stopped raising it as often as they once did. The apparent success of the "surge," which has reduced both the overall violence in Iraq and the number of U.S. casualties, has unnerved critics who last spring were calling for an immediate pullout. If there's still a chance of victory, doesn't it argue for staying the course? As politicians dither, the C-17s keep delivering a steady cargo of coffins. The vast majority of them are seen only by military personnel and the families of the dead.

Supporters of the war charge that media images of the fallen are inherently political statements. But suppressing those images in defense of a war policy is no less a political act.

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