Monday, June 25, 2007

Firefighters' Caskets Are Fit for TV, But Soldiers' Coffins Are Off Limits

There's a reluctance to confront reality and a desire to soften unpleasant realities ... by giving them slightly different names. The various areas where euphemistic language -- euphemistic usages -- crop up are meant to hide the truth, soften reality, make something a little more pleasant or less unpleasant.
- George Carlin to CNN, October 29, 2004

Last Friday, one image dominated CNN's coverage: Nine flag-draped coffins, in a row, containing the bodies of the firefighters killed in a South Carolina furniture store fire. (A still photo of the image accompanied many news articles, like one by Yahoo!/AP.) It's completely understandable why CNN ran the image so often. It summed up, succinctly and touchingly, the magnitude of the loss.

While the loss of the firefighters is certainly a tragedy, as I watched the image of the flag-draped coffins, I couldn't help but think of the fact that those nine bodies represented about one-four-hundreth of the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. And, that those nine flag-draped coffins were nine more than we've seen of Americans killed in Iraq. That is, of course, because the Pentagon has made it policy that flag-draped caskets are not to be photographed by the media.

The argument, articulated by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) in a 2004 AP article (and supported by President Bush, as noted in an MSNBC article) is that the policy is for the privacy of the families. But, really, that argument is a crock. Showing a flag-draped coffin does not single out the identify of the soldier, nor does it invade any inner sanctum. What the Republicans have a problem with is that they know the same thing that CNN knew when showing the firefighters' coffins: that it humanizes the victims. It makes the scene more personal and more poignant, and it makes the loss more palpable and more real. That effect is exactly the opposite reaction the Republicans want, because they know that the more the 3,500 plus soldiers that have perished in Iraq are humanized, the more they are people and not stats in a photo-less article, and the harder it will be for the American people to support the war that is causing these deaths. It is the same kind of manipulation George Carlin was talking about in the quote at the top of this piece.

In the 2004 AP article, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) points out that "during the Kosovo conflict President Clinton was on the tarmac to receive the dead," and that even during the Bush administration, flag-draped coffins were filmed during the war in Afghanistan. Lautenberg pulled no punches about the reasoning for the Pentagon's policy, calling it "an outrage" and asserting that the policy was instituted before the war in Iraq to prevent "the American people from seeing the truth about what's happening."

It seems to me that with the war into its fifth year, and with no end in sight to the bloodshed, it seems relevant now, more than ever, for Americans to have a chance to feel and understand the country's loss because of the president's insistence on pursuing a failed policy. The 2004 AP article was about the failed attempt of the then Republican-controlled Senate to overturn the Pentagon policy. The Democrats are now in control of Congress, and, in light of the microscopic size of Congress's approval ratings, it seems to me that they desperately need to show they understand the American people's frustration over the war. The 2004 vote was 54-39 against repealing the Pentagon policy, and that was at a time when 837 soldiers had been lost in Iraq. With the number now more than four times that figure, maybe it is time for the Democrats to revisit the issue.

I am sure that the Republicans will jump up and down and call any effort to overturn the Pentagon policy a ploy and an affront to the soldiers and their families. I would say that showing the reality of the war, that young men and women are being killed on a daily basis, is not a ploy, but is the press doing its First Amendment job of reporting what is happening to the American people, and doing so in the most effective way possible, just as CNN showed the flag-draped coffins of the South Carolina firefighters. Besides, what could be more of an affront to the soldiers and their families than the incompetence, stubbornness and lack of respect shown by the Bush administration in the (lack of) planning and execution of the war?

Nine deaths of firefighters in South Carolina resulted in top-story coverage by the media outlets, and that coverage included images of flag-draped caskets. It seems to me that the deaths of soldiers in Iraq, in addition to being far more numerous, are equally tragic (and equally senseless) and deserve equal treatment. Only Republican desires to dehumanize the loss in a way that is straight out of the diversion book Carlin talked about are keeping the Iraq deaths from television screens and newspaper pages. Well, that and CNN's obsession with the apparent murder of a pregnant woman in Ohio. The Republicans have an unlikely rival in exploitative news coverage that could trump any change in the Pentagon policy. Somewhere George Carlin is nodding his head in sad agreement.