The U.S. Government Tries to Hide the Bodies

Last week Tami Silicio, a military contractor working in Kuwait, was fired from her job for a photograph she circulated of the coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers as they made their way to the United States for burial. The Seattle native had taken the picture despite a Pentagon ban on images of caskets or remains.

Ironically, Silicio took the photograph as a memento of the esteem the armed forces pays to the men and women who give their lives in times of war. “The way everyone salutes with such emotion and intensity and respect,” she said. “The families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that.”

Apparently the government disagrees.

As the picture circulated in the press and on the Internet, the Pentagon fought tooth and nail to stop the disclosure of similar pictures taken by the military of returning remains to Dover Air Force base in Delaware. Both they and President Bush believe the photos do harm to the families of the victims, that their sensibilities must be protected above the common interest.

But at the cost of Tami Silicio’s job? Rules against photographing the dead have been in place since the first Gulf War, though the practice extends further back in time to Vietnam. However, until 2003 the decision to ban photojournalists from such sensitive areas has rarely been enforced — do an archive search and you’ll find pictures of Kosovo and Kuwait as well as Iraq.

So why the change? Simple: public opinion. The Bush Administration knew last year they were entering into a political hornet’s nest by invading Iraq. Even the specter of September 11th couldn’t persuade the world that the decision was valid, as evidenced by the record number of people protesting the war before it even started. Hence the decree: “There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover base, to include interim stops.”

I do think it’s an admirable goal to allow a family to grieve in their own way. If a reporter took a particularly grisly photo that could identify a family member of mine, I don’t think I’d want to see it. In that respect, I can identify with the Pentagon’s position that they are trying to afford some privacy to the victim’s family.

However, photos like Silicio’s are the opposite of the above scenario. The caskets are laid out end to end with an American flag expertly draped over each one. There are no names visible to identify the remains. The image is a quiet reflection of death.

Leon Espinoza, news editor for the Seattle Times, which first ran Silicio’s photo, was cautious about the picture and what it represents. “The photo without question is a very powerful image, one seldom seen. It shows the great care taken to honor the fallen soldiers, and it can’t help but show the toll a war takes.”

So what infringement of privacy is taking place?

“This is not about privacy,” said Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA). “This is about trying to keep the country from facing the reality of war.”

I will admit, seeing these images trickle in substantiates the fact of rising casualties in the Middle East. With over 800 American soldiers dead, finding a picture with 20 or so coffins qualifies what those against the war have felt for a long time — our brothers and sisters are dying. Couple that with an election year and it’s pretty easy to reveal the motivation why everyone wants these photos to just go away.

Dead bodies equal negative press coverage.

However, everything I’ve heard about the lengths the military goes to honor their dead makes me proud to be American. Friends-in-arms and family serve as pallbearers — in one instance a father helped carry his son’s coffin, in another a wife said goodbye to her husband. The decorum and respect shown each body should be shown to the people of the United States as a reminder that even in the worst of places emotions and love are felt. If someone I knew died in combat in Iraq, I’d feel privileged to see the procession they received before being brought home. I think family members, in spite of their loss, would want that picture or video as a reminder of their sacrifice.

So what does the government think it is preventing by withholding photographs of slain soldiers?

Do they think it realistic to sanitize war to the point where no American soldier is seen dead? Are they so afraid of the power of one image and how it can open minds to what’s happening around the world that censorship is the only answer?

Seeing the caskets loaded on a transport to Germany is a visual reminder that people are actually dying. Hearing a statistic and seeing a body are two entirely different things. Death is an emotional experience. It’s easy to wave a flag and cry patriotism; when you see the results of such jingoism in the tears of another person, it’s not that easy to dismiss.

Maybe this controversy and the recent death of NFL safety Pat Tillman will bring awareness to those who’ve fallen in battle the past year. Whether or not you agree with the war, Tillman believed in his country and what he was fighting for. He died in Afghanistan at age 27. Study his face. Remember his name. Hundreds of people just like him make their way in unmarked caskets back to the United States, victims of war. Should people like Tami Silicio be punished for chronicling their journey?