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Coming Home

Does the American public have a right to see the country's war dead as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan?

By Katharine Q. Seelye in Washington, D.C.

Every week, flag-draped coffins carrying the bodies of American troops arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. A chaplain says a brief prayer and then a military honor guard removes the caskets from the plane so they can continue their final journeys home.

This ceremony—known as the "dignified transfer of remains"—is not something the American public is allowed to see. Since 1991, the military has banned photographs and video coverage of the coffins returning home for burial.

Now, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in their sixth and eighth years, respectively, President Obama is reconsidering this controversial policy.

The review raises key questions about the impact of the photos on public morale during wartime and about how to balance the public's right to see the toll of war with the privacy rights of military families.

The military says the ban spares a soldier's loved ones the hardship and expense of going to Dover to be there to greet the arrival along with the news media.

Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, says that families might think "if the press is going to be there, well, by golly, I should be there to see my son or daughter, husband, wife, mother, father come home." Usually, families wait for their loved one to be escorted home.

But skeptics say the policy is an attempt to sanitize the war and manipulate public opinion.

"This is part of an overall strategy to control the media in terms of what we know about the war and how it's going," says sociologist Brian Gran of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Part of the debate turns on whether the return of soldiers is a private or public matter. While military families have disagreed about allowing the news media at Dover, many agree the return of a body is so deeply personal that they should be able to decide whether to keep it private. Critics say a soldier's joining the military is a public act, done on behalf of country, and that his or her return is of public interest.

Britain and Canada, two important allies in the war in Afghanistan, allow far more news media access to the return of fallen soldiers than does the United States.

Obama & The Military

With the current review, the Pentagon appears to be seeking greater balance between private and public interests. Morrell says that Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to allow families to keep their privacy "while at the same time trying to bring this process more into the open, so that the American people can see what goes on and honor these heroes as well."

There are also political considerations. Obama has been careful not to ruffle feathers in the military, moving cautiously, for example, on his campaign promise to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. It would be out of character for him to change a controversial policy like the photo ban without first building up support for it within the military.

Moreover, no one knows what will happen in Iraq or Afghanistan, or on some other battlefield. At some point, President Obama himself will be held accountable for the coffins coming home, and he may find that it is not in his interest, any more than it was in his predecessors' interests, for Americans to have these visual reminders of the death toll.

Photos of war casualties have long been a consideration in the politics of war. Vietnam is often referred to as the "living room war" for its extensive TV coverage of American casualties, including footage of coffins being unloaded from planes. In the conflicts since, the American public has seen far less such coverage because of both military restrictions and media reluctance to show these kinds of images.

Of course, no one knows how much photos of returning coffins sway public opinion; more than 4,000 have come back from Iraq, largely unphotographed, and the public still turned against the war.

"If the American people believe a war is worth fighting, then pictures of returning casualties won't change anything," says Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who prompted the Pentagon to release hundreds of pictures of coffins returning from Iraq. "The problem comes when there are doubts about the war itself."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 16, 2009)