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Flag-draped coffins of US war casualties rest aboard a cargo plane.
Flag-draped coffins of US war casualties rest aboard a cargo plane.

US to review ban on showing war dead

Government officials and the military are rethinking a policy that bans the press from photographing soldiers' coffins.

WASHINGTON // As Americans prepare for a possible spike in the number of US casualties in Afghanistan, senior government and military officials are rethinking a long-standing policy that bans the press from photographing soldiers' coffins - one that critics have said is meant to hide the true cost of war. Responding to a reporter's question last week, Barack Obama, the president, said he would consider lifting the ban after a thorough review. And Robert Gates, the defence secretary, indicated he too was open to a rule change. "I think looking at it again makes all kinds of sense," Mr Gates said. The debate over whether to allow the media access to the flag-draped coffins - most coming from Iraq and Afghanistan and going through Dover air force base in Delaware - is one that weighs freedom of the press against the privacy of grieving families, and government secrecy against transparency. It could emerge as a litmus test for Mr Obama, who has long criticised the Iraq war and vowed to create a government of unparalleled openness. The ban was put in place before the 1991 Gulf War by George HW Bush, then the president, marking a shift in US policy since the days of the Vietnam War, when images of coffins returning from the battlefield were fixtures of the nightly news. The policy is said to have been a response to a 1989 newscast that showed a jocular Mr Bush juxtaposed with footage of coffins returning from the US invasion of Panama. On one side of a split screen was the president, smiling and joking with reporters, on the other side was the sobering image of the coffins. A military spokesman, Lt Col Les Melnyk, however, said the ban was instituted because the media presence made families feel compelled to be in Delaware as the coffins were transferred, delaying the return of the remains to the soldiers' hometowns. He also cited privacy concerns. Over the years, there have been some exceptions to the rule - photos of the coffins returning from Yemen after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, for example, were made public in 2000, Lt Col Melnyk said. Media were allowed to photograph coffins returning from the Balkans, after a military plane crash killed Ronald Brown, the US commerce secretary, and 33 others. But some have said the restriction grew increasingly stringent during the tenure of George W Bush, who presided over two wars, one of which became increasingly unpopular. And some critics believe, rather than any motive to preserve families' privacy, that the ban was deliberately used to insulate the public from the realities of war. Joe Biden, the vice president, suggested as much in 2004. "The idea that they are essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night so that no one can see that their casket has arrived, I just think is wrong," said Mr Biden, who at the time was a senior member of the Senate foreign relations committee. In 2005, the Pentagon released hundreds of photos of coffins taken by military photographers. The photos were made public in response to a Freedom of Information request - a tool often used by the media to obtain classified documents - and subsequent lawsuit filed by Ralph Begleiter, a professor at the University of Delaware and a former CNN correspondent. "The public in any country - but especially in the United States - needs to be able to assess the full cost of war, not only in terms of the dollar amount spent on it, not only in the amount of bullets or other ammunition that are expended on it ? but also the cost of human life," he said. "Images like these ought to be available to the American people." Many military families are less sure. Kathleen Moakler, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said her group opposes a change in policy because the media access could cause even more grief for families and infringe on their privacy. "It can be upsetting to them not knowing which one may be their service member and we believe that the present policy is sensitive to the needs of these families. We urge everyone else to be sensitive to them as well," she said, noting that families are free to invite the media to private ceremonies and burials. "We think the policy, as it is now, respects their privacy." Others have taken the opposite stance. Cindy Sheehan, a leading anti-war activist after her son Casey died in Iraq in 2004, said the media should be there to show the world the sacrifices that their family members have made. "The policy of not showing coffins, to me, is just a smokescreen so people in America won't feel touched by the war, so that only a few people have to suffer," she said. "If there's a war it should be shared sacrifice ? I think those images are hard ... I think they are unnecessary, but I think everybody in the world needs to see them." Mr Obama said he has ordered his top foreign policy aides to review the matter, which may include sit-down meetings with soldiers' families. The military review, which appears to be a separate inquiry, will be working on a "short deadline", Mr Gates said. John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United, who lost his 20-year old son Justin in Iraq in 2004, said he hopes the leaders consider media access on a case-by-case basis. "If families want to share the reverence and honour shown to their military fallen, it should be up to them," he said, noting that he would have preferred to have had that choice when his son's remains were transported back to US soil. "Looking back I don't know if I would have made that decision to have it open to the media or if it would have been a private -reception, but I wish had the option." sstanek@thenational.ae

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