What could be behind the Bush Administration's decision to censor the photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq? Could it really be, as the government says, to respect "the privacy of the families?" Or is it to hide the realities of war for political reasons? Or is it to protect the delicate sensitivities of the ruling class as Americans die to build them an empire?
As the argument over this censorship continues, I hope people remember a widely-quoted remark made by the president's mother, Barbara Bush, last year during the build-up of the war - the lying time.
"Why should we hear about body bags and deaths," Barbara Bush said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on March 18, 2003. "Oh, I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"
We know this particular censorship can't be about privacy. Since the photos were made public last week, many family members have praised their publication. And since the coffins are anonymous, where is the privacy to be protected?
Were the pictures censored to prevent Americans from having a visceral understanding of the price we must pay for our aggressions overseas? Does "out of sight, out of mind" mean we will not hesitate to "stay the course"?
This thinking dates back to the Vietnam War, when some conservatives decided that the war was "lost" because of television. But those televised images were in our living rooms for years before the final fruitlessness of our effort brought the war to a close.
Most of us know that over 700 American soldiers have died in Iraq so far - and we're still counting. That means 700 extended families in mourning, 700 pictures of funerals and crying parents on the front pages of home-town newspapers, and 700 communities paying their hushed last respects. The number of people personally touched by the deaths of Americans in Iraq is growing exponentially.
Until last week, most of us didn't personally know anyone killed in Iraq. But the need to know was a force starting to hit critical mass:
- First, newspapers and magazines began to do stories about soldiers in rehabilitation - men and women learning to live with without arms and legs. From Iraq, as of this writing, there have been 2,470 Americans wounded so badly they could not return to their duty. (Another 1,394 were able to return after being hurt, according to several Web sites tracking the numbers.)
- The coffin photographs started leaking out.
- Garry Trudeau courageously allowed his "Doonesbury" character, B.D., to get his leg shot off, which brought the war home to the funny pages.
- NFL football star Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan put an even more personal face on war.
The American people, to their eternal credit, want to know the truth. The Seattle Times ran the first coffin picture, taken by a contract cargo worker in Kuwait who wanted to show the parents back home how respectfully their children's bodies were being treated. (She and her husband, who was also working in Kuwait, were fired.) The Times' editor reported that almost 100 percent of the feedback the first day was favorable. The next day, favorable comments were running 50-to-1, and the day after 30- or 40-to-1. (Many more pictures, taken by the government and released through the Freedom of Information Act, are available on-line at www.thememoryhole.com).
To bring home the deaths even more, on tomorrow night's "Nightline," Ted Koppel will devote the entire hour to showing photographs and reading the names of the soldiers killed in Iraq.
You can argue both ways about the long-term impact of these images. Those who believe we need to be in Iraq will accept the deaths as the price we pay for "liberating" the country. Those who are adamantly opposed to the war will see it as the cost of occupation and empire.
As the discussion over the censorship of the photos continues, I hope people remember the blood-chilling arrogance of Barbara Bush's remark. None of us have beautiful minds. We all have bloody minds now, and bloody hands. Whatever our political persuasion, the pictures should make us more aware than ever that war should be a last resort, not a first.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in southern Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org