More than 5,000 troops have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for the last 18 years, the Pentagon has barred news outlets from photographing the return of war dead. As a consequence of this policy, the American people have been sheltered from the fact that American men and women are dying. Thankfully, the Obama administration has decided to lift the ban and allow photographs of the returning caskets, provided that the family members of the deceased offer their consent. This promising new policy treads the fine line between protecting military families and informing the public about the true costs of war. Now it’s up to the media to responsibly report on the consequences of our foreign entanglements.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush banned news coverage of returning war dead. This rule remained until the Obama administration lifted the ban in February. The new policy permits journalists to photograph returning war dead, but only with the consent of the deceased soldiers’ families. Last Sunday, the coffin of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers became the first to be photographed under the new rules.
Although the old policy’s stated purpose was to shield military families from an invasion of privacy during a time of grief, it also shielded the American people from the reality of our losses in foreign wars. Seeing firsthand the caskets coming home helps people to realize our presence in the Middle East has consequences, and will hopefully motivate voters to select the country’s leadership with these realities in mind. This effect was certainly not lost on Bush when he gave the order to prohibit such photographs in 1991. Since then, the lack of photos in the news has helped to rev up support for war and hide the very real cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The most important effect of the new policy is that it allows the media to more accurately inform the public. The media has a right and a responsibility to show the American people the reality of the government’s actions. And a government policy that prevents the media from fulfilling this vital function is counter-intuitive in a democracy supposedly based on open and fair government.
But despite the importance of keeping the public informed, it’s understandable that the administration’s rules strive to protect grieving families. These families have suffered a tremendous loss, and they shouldn’t be forcibly subjected to additional hardship. At the same time, the new policy is only an improvement as long as requiring consent doesn’t become a form of de facto censorship. If giving families a choice results in another media ban, the policy would need to be revisited. It’s critical that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be portrayed in a comprehensive and accurate fashion.
Distorting reports to promote failed policies was a hallmark of both Bush administrations. But with a president in office who seems to recognize the folly of America’s foreign policy and a populous motivated by the visible cost of war, there is hope for a quick end to these wars.