After the subject came up at President Obama’s press conference Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the next day he was ordering a review of a Pentagon policy banning the media from taking photos of the flag-draped coffins of our military casualties as they arrive back in the States.
Gates should lift the ban.
It was imposed at the outset of the first Gulf War when it was anticipated that the casualties would be much higher than they were. In the relatively peaceful times that followed, the ban was occasionally waived. But President George W. Bush made the ban absolute.
In 2004, an American cargo worker photographed flag-draped coffins being loaded on a military transport in Kuwait. The photo was not at all disrespectful, and, in fact, rather moving. But she was fired from her job with a U.S. contractor, who, for good measure, fired her husband, too.
Whatever the Bush administration’s other motives for the ban, it was, like leaving Iraq and Afghanistan out of the federal budget, part of a pattern of obscuring those wars’ true costs. And it also fit that administration’s penchant for avoiding public scrutiny of its actions.
The military receives the coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and other facilities with decorum and ritual. There’s no reason these ceremonies can’t be photographed under mutually-agreed-upon rules of access.
The identity of the remains in the coffin is not revealed. Once the coffin reaches its destination, how much public attention is paid should be up to the family.
John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United, told the Associated Press, "Some people want to celebrate the lives of their fallen, and share their fallen hero with the American people, while others want to hold them a little closer to the vest and keep it private. We should respect that. It shouldn’t be up to the government to hide these images to the public."
Secretary Gates, we believe you have your policy.