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Pentagon Rethinks Its 18-Year Ban on Photos and Videos of Coffins Bearing War Dead Home

Coffins of fallen troops arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The Air Force released this undated photo after a Freedom of Information Act request.
Coffins of fallen troops arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The Air Force released this undated photo after a Freedom of Information Act request. (U.S. Air Force - Via Reuters)
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"This is very much Democratically driven to make it available to the public so they can publicize the negative side of the war and show the American public there is a high cost to be paid here," said Cal Peters, whose stepson, Marine Capt. Garret Lawton, died Aug. 4 in Afghanistan. "I think this is the ultimate disrespect."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expects a review of the issue back within days, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday. Gates is seeking "a way to better balance an individual family's privacy concerns with the right of the American people to honor these fallen heroes" and "is disposed, leaning, tilting towards trying to do more, if possible" to allow coverage of the ceremony, Morrell said.

At Arlington National Cemetery, the next of kin of the deceased service member decide whether to allow coverage by news reporters and photographers, who are kept far enough from the mourners so they cannot hear what is being said.

That policy "has worked well," said John C. Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent. "Obviously it is traumatic, but how the military does it, with the precision and respect, is a very positive thing. I think the public also looks at it as positive."

Pictures of casualties have long played into the politics of a war -- most notably in Vietnam, dubbed the "living-room war" for its extensive television coverage, including footage of coffins rolling off planes at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii as if off a conveyor belt.

President George H.W. Bush's administration imposed the ban on media coverage of the arrival of fallen troops' remains at Dover Air Force Base during the Gulf War in February 1991. It came about after a controversy arose when Bush held a news conference at the same moment the first U.S. casualties were returning to Dover the day after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, and three television networks carried the events live on split screen, with Bush appearing at one point to joke while on the opposite screen the solemn ceremony unfolded at the Delaware base.

Indeed, starting in the 1990s, politicians and generals used the term "the Dover test" to describe the public's tolerance for troop casualties.

Still, experts say that if images can shape public sentiment about a war, they rarely do so alone. Instead, their role in influencing opinion usually depends on the broader political narrative on whether the war is worth the cost, Lichter said.

"On Afghanistan, the public believes this is a war we must fight," Lichter said. "This is where we fight the Taliban, this is where we fight the terrorists," he said. "So for the images to have an impact from Afghanistan, someone would have to link those images to a narrative of futility . . . that it's a quagmire."

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have upheld the Dover ban, but both have also made notable exceptions, which some observers view as politically expedient. For example, under President Bill Clinton in October 2000, the Pentagon distributed photographs of coffins arriving at Dover bearing the remains of military personnel killed in the bombing of the USS Cole.

John Clodfelter lost his son, Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Kenneth Clodfelter, in the Cole attack and supports lifting the ban. "When our son's remains were returned up at Dover, there were several caskets that came off the plane, and you couldn't tell which was Kenneth and which one was not Kenneth," he said. As for whether news personnel should be allowed to cover the transfer, he said, "I don't have a problem with it myself, as long as they are at a respectable distance."

Clodfelter said he did not believe such coverage would spur antiwar sentiment among Americans. "If anything, I would hope that they would go ahead and feel sympathy for the families," he said. "The people really need to understand that, hey, lives are being lost for you, to be able to get these people that are trying to kill our loved ones. The American military does so much for us, it's unreal, and people really do not appreciate it at all."

Exceptions were also made under President George W. Bush, such as in September 2001 when the Air Force published a photo of the transfer at Dover of the remains of a victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

"When it was in the government's interest, they allowed photographers to take pictures," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive, which provided legal representation for the Begleiter lawsuit that led the Pentagon to release in 2005 hundreds of photographs taken by government photographers. "They wanted us to be angry over a terrorist attack," she said.

Soon after the war in Afghanistan started in October 2001, however, the Pentagon restated the ban on coverage at Dover, and in March 2003, the same month that the U.S. military invaded Iraq, it expanded the policy prohibiting media coverage of the coffins of fallen troops to other ports of arrival as well.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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