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High-Stakes Testing

In the halls of the Pentagon, it's called "The Dover Test." From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media…

In the halls of the Pentagon, it’s called “The Dover Test.”

From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

The term was popularized in 1999 by the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry Shelton, who asked the question, “Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — which is a point of entry for our Armed Forces?” The Dover Test is meant to challenge decision-makers to carefully consider the American people’s level of commitment to war.

The Department of Defense has found itself defending the administration’s decision to enforce a seldom-used policy that prohibits news coverage of caskets returning to Dover. The policy was established by President George H. W. Bush after the first Gulf War, but has been inconsistently enforced since then.

Casualty photographs can evoke powerful emotions, but taking photographs of wounded or dead soldiers is permitted by DOD ground rules, which required the following reasonable condition:

4.H.2. Battlefield casualties may be covered by embedded media as long as the service member’s identity is protected from disclosure for 72 hours or upon verification of NOK (next of kin) notification, whichever is first.

Despite such regulations, the Army attempted to expel embedded Army Times journalists after we published a photo of a mortally wounded soldier. However, the DOD quickly determined that taking and publishing that photo did not constitute a violation of the ground rules and reversed the Army’s order.

So the Dover media ban didn’t exactly make sense at first. The restrictions on covering coffins didn’t fit with the openness we had experienced on the battlefield.

Photographs of flag-draped coffins have still been taken and published, though not without consequence. Tami Silicio, a DOD contract employee in Kuwait, sent photos of flag-draped caskets in an aircraft cargo hold to The Seattle Times. Soon after, she was fired. On April 14, 2004, the Air Force released 288 such photos to Russ Kick, of the Web site The Memory Hole (www.thememory hole.org), after a successful Freedom of Information Act appeal. Unfortunately, the attention the release of the photos commanded pulled focus away from the real point: the sacrifices of our soldiers and families, and the honor they deserve.

The current administration is quick to say the policy that bans the taking and publishing of photographs of flag-draped coffins has been around since the end of the first Gulf War. But there have been ceremonies at Dover for casualties from Afghanistan, the USS Cole, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya, and for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died along with 32 others in a 1996 plane crash in Bosnia. The ceremonies were always respectful, reverent and well executed. The ceremonies at Dover represented the return of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine to American soil, and recording the moment, with its attending dignity and honor, was worthy of the media’s attention.

A compelling essay by Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl has been passed around the Internet this year. The story takes the reader on a touching journey of the flag-draped casket of Private First Class Chance Phelps as Strobl escorts the Marine’s remains from Dover to his hometown of Dubois, Wyo. Along the way, there are touching details of pride and patriotism. The essay, which can be found at www.walkingfor chance.com/chance.html, also gives us an indication of the many other stories that have been lost by this media restriction.

Despite the restrictions at Dover, there has been no shortage of images reminding us of the sacrifices of our soldiers and their families. There have been the urgent, dusty and bloody images from the battlefield, as well as the shock and profound sadness of the graveside. As a photo editor, the challenge is to use photos that respect the magnitude of that sacrifice. But as journalists, it is our responsibility not to turn away from the truth.

And truth, or its perception, seems to be what this is all about. Whether the motivation for enforcing a little-used policy was noble or political, the outcome has been a distraction to the process of honoring our dead.

Images of war can reveal sacrifice, heroism, camaraderie or the caustic truth of Abu Ghraib. There will always be sacrifice in war, but that sacrifice should not be marginalized or undersold. As it stands now, the war in Iraq may never be subjected to “The Dover Test.”

You can’t fail a test if you don’t take it.

Steve Elfers is the director of photography for the Army Times Publishing Company.