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Media ban on troops' coffins may lift

But the possibility raises questions: Would it be disrespectful to photograph the war dead's return? And what effect would the pictures have on public morale?

February 17, 2009|Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Every week, Air Force cargo jets land and taxi down the runway at Dover Air Force Base, Del., carrying the remains of fallen U.S. troops. After a chaplain says a simple prayer, an eight-member military honor guard removes the metal "transfer cases" from the planes and carries them to a mortuary van.

The flag-draped coffins are a testament to the toll of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as of the sacrifice borne by those who serve in the military and their families. But this ceremony, known as the "dignified transfer of remains" and performed nearly 5,000 times since the start of the wars, is hidden from public view by the Pentagon.

President Obama said last week that he is considering lifting the ban on photographs and videos at Dover, in place since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, raising fundamental questions about the impact of such images on the public morale in wartime.

For Obama, changing the policy would carry some political risk as he ramps up the war effort in Afghanistan with tens of thousands of fresh troops, increasing the likelihood of combat deaths that could produce photographs of numerous coffins arriving at one time at Dover, the sole port of entry for the remains. At the same time, Obama has advocated transparency in government, and continuing to hide the Dover ritual conflicts with that principle as well as with public opinion on the issue, polls indicate.

"Showing these pictures would remind people of the war," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. He added, however: "What turns people against a war is not knowledge that Americans are dying, but the belief that they are not dying for something" worthwhile.

A majority of Americans favor allowing the public to see pictures of the military honor guard receiving the war dead at Dover, with about 60% responding positively and a third answering negatively in polls posing the question in 1991 and 2004.

Some families of fallen troops also support allowing the media to photograph and videotape the ceremony, or at least letting the families decide whether to permit it rather than continuing the government ban.

"I would have loved to see them fly my son back in and give him a full salute," said Janice Chance of suburban Owings Mills, Md., whose son, Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, was killed Sept. 9 in Afghanistan's Parwan province. She said she is in favor of media coverage of the return ceremony.

"As long as it is done in good taste, and they are showing that the people here in the United States are welcoming them back and saying job well done, that is what I would like to see," she said.

Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent and WTOP radio reporter who teaches journalism and politics at the University of Delaware, has sued the government to obtain the release of some military photographs of honor ceremonies at Dover under the Freedom of Information Act.

"Dover is the only place in the country where the entire nation can observe the return of these casualties," Begleiter said. "The most important and dramatic . . . cost of war is the casualties, the troops who make the ultimate sacrifice and come back to their country in a casket draped with an American flag, and to leave that image unobserved seems to be disingenuous."

Other family members strongly disagreed, however, saying they felt media coverage would allow their lost loved ones to be politically exploited.

"This is very much Democratically driven to make it available to the public so they can publicize the negative side of the war and show the American public there is a high cost to be paid here," said Cal Peters, whose stepson, Marine Capt. Garret Lawton, died Aug. 4 in Afghanistan. "I think this is the ultimate disrespect."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was expecting the review back within days, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Friday. Gates is seeking "a way to better balance an individual family's privacy concerns with the right of the American people to honor these fallen heroes" and "is disposed, leaning, tilting towards trying to do more, if possible," to allow coverage of the ceremony, Morrell said.

At Arlington National Cemetery, the deceased service member's next of kin decide whether to allow coverage by news reporters and photographers, who are kept far enough from the mourners so they cannot hear what is being said.

That policy "has worked well," said John Metzler, Arlington cemetery's superintendent. "Obviously it is traumatic, but how the military does it, with the precision and respect, is a very positive thing. I think the public also looks at it as positive."

Pictures of casualties have long played into the politics of a war -- most notably in Vietnam, dubbed the "living-room war" for its extensive television coverage, including footage of coffins rolling off planes at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii as if off a conveyor belt.

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