Photographing America's War Dead
Lifting the ban on photographing coffins at Dover airbase is a victory for transparency. But the public may still never see them
Can the American people handle the truth? The Obama administration seems to think so. On Thursday, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, overturned the ban on photographing the flag-draped coffins of fallen US soldiers arriving at Dover air force base in Delaware from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reversing the ban is an easy way for Barack Obama to fulfill his commitment to transparency, score points with supporters and distance himself further from the Bush administration - even as he quietly maintains other, more significant Bush-era terrorism policies like extraordinary rendition and the state secrets privilege. The photographs will also be allowed only with the permission of the soldiers' families, alleviating any concerns about violating their privacy.
In a larger sense, however, the question of whether to allow photos is irrelevant now.
When the photo ban came to light in April 2004, it became a symbol of the Bush administration's deliberate manipulation and suppression of the truth regarding Iraq. Tami Silicio was fired from her job as a military contractor for giving the Seattle Times a photo of caskets being flown home from Kuwait, which the paper ran on its front page. The same month, the website The Memory Hole published photos of coffins arriving at Dover that it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. If only the American people could see Iraq's true consequences, Bush's critics believed, they would turn against the administration and demand change.
Today, however, Obama's election has largely settled the debate over Bush and Iraq. Allowing the public to see photos of flag-draped coffins now won't make the war any more unpopular than it already is. The photos might conceivably still influence public opinion about Afghanistan, where Obama is deploying 17,000 additional US troops. But that assumes that the public will actually get to see the photos.
The truth is, even without a ban on photos at Dover, they're unlikely to make it into the media. News coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen to negligible levels. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, Iraq dominated the headlines during the first half of 2007, accounting for 20% of all news coverage between January, when Bush announced the surge, and the end of May, when Congress passed the president's war-funding request without a timetable for withdrawal after a lengthy and contentious debate.
Since then, however, coverage has plummeted, as violence decreased and the US presidential campaign heated up. By the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, in March 2008, coverage was down to just 3% of all news. The three US broadcast news networks - NBC, ABC, and CBS - devoted just 434 minutes of their nightly coverage to Iraq in 2008, compared with 1,888 minutes in 2007. In January, Iraq accounted for only 1.25% of stories in the US, and it has completely disappeared from headlines this month, as the economy has come to dominate the news cycle.
Partly, news organisations are turning their focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. But even so, Afghanistan currently accounts for just 2% of news coverage. The economic crisis, by contrast, accounted for 47% of coverage two weeks ago, according to the most recent Pew report.
And not all news stories are accompanied by photographs, remember. Partly, it has to do with the nature of the news. Ashley Gilbertson, a photographer for the New York Times, had about 30 front-page photos from a rotation in Iraq in 2004 that included covering the Marine assault on Falluja. When he went back the next year, however, he only had one. "At best, a story involved behind-the-scenes political reporting, which did not lend itself to strong photography," Gilbertson recalls in his book about covering the war, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. "At worst, it was about violence between the Sunni and Shia, which was impossible to photograph."
Even during the height of the conflict, space for photographs could be hard to come by. During his first rotation for the Times in 2003, Gilbertson had a big spread in the Sunday paper wiped off the front page by a freak snowstorm in Manhattan.
Openness and access are key democratic principles, and Obama should be applauded for overturning the ban on photographs at Dover. Public awareness of the number of American troops killed in Iraq is connected to the amount of coverage the war receives in the media. If the media doesn't take advantage of its newfound access, though, it won't make one ounce of difference. In some ways, Bush's ban and the furore it caused may have focused more attention on the issue than the photos themselves ever would.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited