View Full Version : Pentagon Rethinks Photo Ban on Coffins Bearing War Dead

02-17-2009, 08:52 PM
WashPost 16feb09

"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 U.S. port of entry for the remains. At the same time, Obama has advocated transparency in government, and continuing to hide the Dover ritual from public view 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 S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. But he added that "what turns people against a war is not knowledge that Americans are dying but the belief that they are not dying for something" worthwhile.


I find this topic fascinating. Lots of issues involved. Thoughts?

With new media such as bloggers, how do you allow access to some media but not others?

Ken White
02-17-2009, 09:33 PM
Father with a son who has deployed three times, I don't really care whether the pictures are in the MSM or not. As you point out, access is essentially already there as pictures have appeared on the internet. The pictures of the funerals are and have always been in local Papers (Full disclosure; were I to have to attend that son's funeral, I would probably get violent with any media type or, most especially any politician, who dared appear and who did not behave in what I believed to be an appropriate [i.e. totally unnoticeable] manner).

The whole thing is a political issue; the previous Administration decided not to do it; the current one may decide to do it -- make no difference to me or, I suspect, to most but not all parents, I do know some who agree with the ban, do not personally know any who object to it. It will make a difference to the politically inclined and active; most of whom on both sides don't have kids involved or really deserve attention from anyone.

I think the quote you provide is correct; most Americans will not react to deaths in combat, they expect those; they will react if they believe the number of deaths is not worth the cost -- and the calculus to arrive at that balance is very much an individual thing. There is an admitted ideological facet; those that support the party in power will tolerate more casualties than will their opponents...:rolleyes:

Thus I expect all those who have screamed for the release of such photos to be suddenly silent -- and for their fulminating about withdrawals to be muted.

I've answered your question with my opinion and perceptions; I have a question of you. Why do you find the topic fascinating?

02-18-2009, 01:22 AM
Hi Ken,

I think it is fascinating from a media/public affairs stand-point. I am an army reserve public affairs officer. This issue brings in so many issues such as free speech, political support for the military, costs of war, public relations between military and civil side, and the human element of families and friends of the fallen.

It seems to me that the families should be the ones with the major say in all of this. If they want it done, they should be allowed to get who they want. If they do not, they deserve that respect too.

Ken White
02-18-2009, 02:42 AM
It does all that, no question. As I said, my vote is 'Either of the above.' In my personal opinion, it is a non issue but I do know that others including other families differ.

I agree with your judgment.

02-18-2009, 04:57 AM
My only concern would be how the media would misconstrue those photos, scared of the spin they would put on it.

Agree should be the family or service member's decision.

02-18-2009, 07:10 AM
This is one of those issues.

I think that reasonable people can disagree on the following...
- Homosexuals in the military (whether they serve openly)
- Flag-draped coffin photos (whether to publish photos of them)
- Decision to invade Iraq (whether it has put us at a strategic disadvantage, thus far)

What stifles meaningful discussion of these issues in the public sphere, outside of SWJ, is that if you take a side of any of those issues, then it leads to foreseeable second-order effects. Generally, most people who have energetic opinions on these matters will answer either yes to all three or no to all three. Those people generally happen to inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum. They happen to have energetic opinions on the issues above because they feature prominently in the narratives that each side seeks to push. Speaking only for myself...

Homosexuals in the military
- I don't think it should be condoned. But, even if I did, I would not advocate for it. I think it would become overly politicized, drawing service members too deeply into political discourse and creating too much political pressure upon the organization that could take who-knows-what type of form - certainly a significant distraction and probably a detrimental one.

Flag-draped coffins
- I don't think that they should be published, simply out of respect to the families (if you want your son/daughter's coffin photographed, create a blog and do it yourself, in my opinion). But, if we did allow it, as a matter of policy, I suspect that this would fall into the narrative that the current policy existed to "hide the reality of war" or some nonsense to that effect and now we're finally "exposing" President Bush's (insert outrageous allegation). Once again, it would politicize and distract.

Decision to invade Iraq
- I happen to think that it was a wise long-term endeavor. But I also admit that it has put us in a strategically weaker position in the short term. But if you admit to that in a forum less rational than SWJ (which would be just about anywhere), then you've just "admitted" the underlying premise of the argument for why invading was wrong (I don't encounter many folks who are even willing to consider whether it makes sense in the long term; it's short-term, instant gratification, now, me, gimme, more, from what I've observed).

That's not intended to push my views or to draw the forum off topic. I just view all three of these as manifestations of the same beast and I think the similarities help to illustrate a basic point about issues like flag-draped coffins. People cling to their original views on the matter or to their politically-expedient views because to think otherwise and to admit to thinking otherwise draws predictable, intelligently-dishonest, and often shameless counterattack from the other side in order to score cheap political points.

And I'm also not suggesting that folks like me, on the right, are just innocent victims of the left. There are plenty on the right who would behave equally shamlessly if a lefty were to come out against all three of the issues above.

Political correctness has given way to shameless intellectual dishonesty. Instead of just intimidating people into remaining silent about what they perceive to be true, people are now compelled to take it a step further and proclaim what they perceive to be untrue. Instead of being forced into a vocal minority's view of conformity, many are now being repulsed to the ends of the political spectrum out of contempt, rather than drawn there by the strengths of either sides' arguments.

I expect the policy on flag-draped coffins to change simply because reversing it is seen as a dig against the previous administration's defense policy. For that reason, I expect it to be met with fanfare by people who have political motives at heart, rather than human ones. Likewise, I expect proponents of the current policy to voice outrage simply in response to the fanfare.

Well, that's my upbeat thought for the day.:D

02-18-2009, 02:08 PM
From an information operations perspective, what is the value added? What does this do to tell the military story to the American people? Whenever a servicemember is KIA, the local, and sometimes regional (and sometimes national, if it was "spectacular" or "heroic") MSM usually publishes some sort of writeup. That serves to notify the people that our folks are continuing to put their lives on the line.

Outside of a professional perspective, all I can imagine is that no good will come of it. How do flag draped coffins do anything other than play into the hands of those that wish to spin the current conflicts in a negative fashion? Further, as a father, if some yahoo used a picture of my son in a coffin to push their agenda (positive or negative) there would be repeated fist/face interactions in their immediate vicinity.

02-18-2009, 03:01 PM
Like I said earlier, I believe it should be up to the families.

However, to play devil's advocate regarding, "what good could it do from an information operations perspective?", I think it could do some good.

Many Americans have no connection to OIF/OEF and even when they read one of the MSM headlines about KIA it does not register. Although hard to understand, it may be because they do not feel connected to the story or individual. Maybe the Dover photos and subsequent obits would help those disconnected Americans feel connected to the story. Maybe it would help with the moderate's perspective.

Steve Blair
02-18-2009, 03:19 PM
I think such an effort would inevitably become politicized and that the results would not necessarily be good for anyone concerned. As far as I know families already have the ability to send such photos out if they wish, although personally I find funeral images more effective than the proverbial "rows of flag-draped coffins." Coffins won't really help anyone connect...if for no other reason than the numbers are low in relative terms. Sorry if that sounds harsh or unfeeling (which isn't the intent), but when compared to past conflicts the number of KIA from Iraq and Afghanistan is low. Impact for these images comes from numbers (think the magazine cover in the aftermath of Dong Ap Bai in 1969...even though the media never stated that many of the men in the pictures were KIA at other locations in SVN), not a random stream of single images.

Ken White
02-18-2009, 07:07 PM
...I think it could do some good...Maybe the Dover photos and subsequent obits would help those disconnected Americans feel connected to the story. Maybe it would help with the moderate's perspective.back from Korea and Viet Nam -- and photos were published, I'm pretty sure the answer to your pondering is 'No. It will make virtually no difference to most Americans.'

It is, as several have pointed out, purely a political issue. The good news is that the American Legion and the VFW have come out solidly against it; that is good only from the standpoint that our new Administration seems to react over strongly to perceived objections to their desired course and that tendency to overreach will adversely impact their net ability over the next four years to affect DoD and the Armed Forces...

02-18-2009, 10:57 PM
although personally I find funeral images more effective than the proverbial "rows of flag-draped coffins." Coffins won't really help anyone connect....

This is a point well taken. I'm not sure how much connection can be received from coffins. The funeral pictures and images are much more effective.

Oddly, enough this (funeral photos) was a huge PR issue as well last year and covered by WashPost.

"The family of 38-year-old Hall, who leaves behind two young daughters and two stepsons, gave their permission for the media to cover his Arlington burial -- a decision many grieving families make so that the nation will learn about their loved ones' sacrifice. But the military had other ideas, and they arranged the Marine's burial yesterday so that no sound, and few images, would make it into the public domain."



Ken White
02-18-2009, 11:41 PM
Arlington is Arlington and the guy that runs it IIRC and if he has not moved on, is the second generation of his family in that job. That's odd in itself. Can't say about him but I know his like named predecessor in the 1970s had some quite different and strict ideas about what was proper and what was not...

The important thing is that far more burials take place in cemeteries all over the country than in Arlington by many orders of magnitude (purposeful redundance) and there have been no restrictions on media coverage. I've seen photos and stories from all over the country for eight years with tons of photos and the internet is full of them. I just Googled "Funeral Iraq soldier"and got 180,000 hits; went to the image pages and got 50 pages of images, about 50% or so of which were pictures of funerals.

Showing photos of coffins at Dover is NOT a PR issue, it is a political issue.

02-19-2009, 12:11 AM
This is a point well taken. I'm not sure how much connection can be received from coffins. The funeral pictures and images are much more effective.
I think this could do the trick: http://www.hbo.com/films/takingchance/

02-19-2009, 01:53 AM
I think this could do the trick: http://www.hbo.com/films/takingchance/

great find and you are right, i remember seeing the trailer for this before and forgot about it

02-19-2009, 01:56 AM
Showing photos of coffins at Dover is NOT a PR issue, it is a political issue.

When you look at all facets of this together, I agree.

I remeber being at the DOD public affairs course last year and we had the head Army O-6 of PA speak to us. At the time, the Arlington media issue was a big deal. He made the same point. He said that it was a non-issue at other funerals around the country and the Arlington issue seemed to be just a couple pf personality conflicts.