Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, May 2, 2004
by Susan Ives
There is no privacy in a combat zone.
You eat together, sleep together, shower together. You wear your rank on your collar and your unit on your sleeve.
You are never alone, even in death. From the moment a soldier, sailor, airman or marine dies on the battlefield, his or her final journey is carefully scripted, from the time of day the notification officer will knock on a mother’s door, to the way that the flag is folded into a tight triangle at graveside and solemnly presented to the next of kin on behalf of a grateful nation.
Families and friends suffer a private and lonely grief. A son, a husband, a sister: dead.
It is the tension between these two competing needs – the public honor and the private sorrow – that is at the heart of the current controversy about photographing the arrival of flag-draped coffins at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware.
For most of Dover’s existence – the mortuary opened in 1955 – the Pentagon courted media coverage. Jimmy Carter was photographed praying over the coffins of airmen killed in the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran; Ronald Reagan pinned Purple Hearts on the caskets of Marines killed in El Salvador.
Since the start of the first Gulf War the Pentagon has blocked media coverage at Dover, claiming it was to protect the privacy and feelings of the families.
Historians speculate that President George H. W. Bush instituted the 1991 ban, angered when TV networks used a split screen to show him laughing at a news briefing in Washington while coffins were shown being offloaded in Dover.
A year ago the Pentagon extended the restriction to all of its facilities.
Critics maintain that the ban is self-serving, a White House attempt to minimize the Iraq War’s death toll and avoid the so-called “Dover effect,” a replay of the horrific procession of 21,000 coffins passing though Dover during the Viet Nam War that helped turn the tide against that conflict.
The blackout was busted a few weeks ago. A government contractor in Kuwait – the route is Baghdad-Kuwait-Germany-Dover – slipped a batch of photos to the Seattle Times, which printed one on their front page. She has since been fired.
A few days later, Russ Kick, a First Amendment Activist, published 288 Dover photos, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, on his Web site, www.thememoryhole.com.
The Pentagon was furious.
“Quite frankly, we don’t want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified,” said John Molino, a deputy undersecretary of defense.
I looked at Kick’s photos, every one.
Molino’s statement is subtly deceptive. The term “remains” implies that the photographs are of bodies – bones and sinew – when, in fact, every photo is of a steel transfer case: not, technically, a coffin or casket, which is provided at Dover after the body is conclusively identified and dressed for burial. Each case is tautly wrapped in a flag, ceremonially removed from the belly of a cargo plane by white-gloved airmen and treated with heartbreaking dignity and respect.
And not all families are distressed by the coverage. At a rally in Dover in March, Jane Bright of West Hills, Calif., whose 24-year-old son was killed in combat in July, said, “We need to stop hiding the deaths of our young; we need to be open about their deaths.”
In would be an act of unconscionable barbarity to broadcast pictures of the mangled bodies of our dead. It would be cruel to intrude, uninvited, on a family’s grief at graveside.
But to view a tragic procession of anonymous flag-draped coffins: that is our duty, our penance, our national sorrow.
In death as in life, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have no secrets, no privacy. With flags waving, we Americans sent them to fight and we have a right – no, an obligation – to witness their return, shrouded with those same flags.