Censoring the Truth About War

Editorial
Page Number: 
4

From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

There are certain rules about a war, and Rule No. 1 is that young men die. Rule No. 2 is that (you) can't change Rule No. 1.

-- Lt. Col. Henry Blake, "M*A*S*H"

I doubt Tami Silicio ever contemplated the uproar surrounding the publication of the photo she took of flag-draped coffins loaded in a cargo plane at Kuwait International Airport. She probably never expected to lose her job with a government contractor because she took a stunning photo of the truth.

But the moment the photo ran in The Seattle Times on April 27, we knew Silicio would lose her job. After three years fighting battles with the U.S. government over access to information about the war on terror, we have come to realize that the government does not want the public to have a complete picture of the costs of war.

The fractious relationship between photojournalists and the military has existed since Matthew Brady took pictures of dead Civil War soldiers. Today, we recognize his images as an invaluable historical record of the biggest crisis this nation ever faced.

Military censors were largely able to prevent publication of such photos in World War I, and the ban continued until almost the end of World War II. But images of war dead became numbingly routine in Vietnam and throughout the 1980s. The government often allowed the media to take pictures of coffins returning from Lebanon, Granada and Panama to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the designated arrival point for returning American soldiers killed overseas.

That policy changed when the United States launched its first major war since Vietnam. In January 1991, when dead soldiers from the first Gulf War began to arrive home, the first President Bush began prohibiting pictures of coffins being unloaded at Dover. Nearly 300 U.S. military personnel were killed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld the ban in 1996 after media organizations, among others, sued to lift it. The appeals court cited the need to protect the privacy of grieving families in holding that the ban does not violate First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press.

As Grant Penrod's cover story in this edition of The News Media & The Law tells us, the ban is in place because of "The Dover Test," the unscientific measurement of public approval for military operations. Apparently, the Pentagon has found that public acceptance of its actions is directly related to images of flag-draped coffins. Too many American bodies translates into fewer Americans willing to wage a long-term war. Imagine that.

While the government claims it is merely trying to protect the "privacy" of military families, it's hard not to conclude that the policy's intention is merely an attempt to downplay the realities of war.

In fact, I was puzzled as I watched the Ronald Reagan funeral ceremonies, which were going on at about the same time The Seattle Times' coffin photo story was playing out. There was nothing that overtly distinguished his flag-draped coffin from any of those in Silicio's photo. We were glued to the TV screen for four days, and no one raised Reagan's privacy interest. Rather, we were moved by the majesty of the ceremony.

In an interview with the Times, Silicio said it was not voyeuristic instincts that prompted her to take the photo. Rather, as a mother who once lost a 19-year-old son to a brain tumor, she knows what the mothers of the dead soldiers are feeling.

"It kind of helps me to know what these mothers are going through, and I try to watch over their children as they head home," Silicio said.

While some readers were predictably upset that the Times ran Silicio's photo, many who sent letters to the newspaper said they appreciated having a complete "picture" of what's happening in Iraq.

The photo is one of those awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime shots. It conveys many messages:

It shows that we respect and honor the sacrifices made by these soldiers. It shows dead soldiers are being shipped home with alarming frequency. It shows that no matter how hard you train, you still have a very good chance of going home in a coffin.

The photo simply shows the truth.