Pentagon lifts photo ban on war dead

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. News organizations will once again be allowed to take pictures of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. That's where America's military dead come home. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the new policy will not apply to all caskets.

GATES: I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected: on an individual basis by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place.

MULLINS: Andrew Bacevich lost his son to the war in Iraq. Bacevich approves of this new policy.

BACEVICH: Speaking as one parent, there is no consolation that one gets by not having the returning soldiers � the remains of returning soldiers, the coffins of returning soldiers photographed when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base. People should know the costs of American wars, and pictures of coffins do convey some sense of what that cost is. I've never felt that privacy concerns could justify a policy of prohibiting photographs of returning dead from war zones. So in that sense, I welcome the change in policy. But as a parent of a soldier who was lost, the change is not one of particular significance because parents don't go to Dover Air Force Base to meet their loved ones.

MULLINS: That was Andrew Bacevich. His son, Andrew, was killed in Iraq in May of 2007. David Perlmutter is a veteran documentary photographer and a journalism professor at the University of Kansas. He says there's a long history of war images being kept out of public view, but that things changed during World War Two.
DAVID PERLMUTTER: The thinking was at the time that the American public maybe needed to see the sacrifice that soldiers were making rather than it being completely hidden from them by censorship. Korea and Vietnam, there was a gradual change. Certainly in the early years of Vietnam, you didn't see a radical difference, but as the war progressed and as the new technology of handheld cameras allowed reporters to get closer and closer to the fighting, you began to see more pictures of wounded Americans and eventually dead Americans.

MULLINS: So talk about the current ban, which was actually put in place by President George H.W. Bush. Can you tell us the impact of the ban during the Persian Gulf War and then beyond right now? I mean, the reason that the ban was kept for Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera, and why it's being lifted?

PERLMUTTER: Well, obviously there's a controversy there about stated reasons versus maybe political reasons. Certainly in the stated reasons, there are procedural ones about the complicated nature of the process of battlefield retrieval and delivery to home. There was the reason that's � to me anyway is a perfectly legitimate one, about concern about families. Certainly some families feel that, as your previous speaker said, they didn't see it as an extra burden to have a picture of a coffin. Some definitely do feel that it's an intrusion on their privacy. So I think there was a mixture of motives on why it was originally kept in place, and since then no administration has felt necessarily the political pressure or perhaps political will to make a change in that policy.

MULLINS: There are images, though, of war dead on YouTube, on other websites. What difference would it make to lift this ban now on the caskets of the war dead as they first touch ground here in the United States?

PERLMUTTER: Yes. Exactly. We live in an age where the famous statement by Washington Post publisher Phil Kramer about journalism is the first draft of history. Now anybody with a cell phone is doing the first draft of history, and anybody with a cell phone, whether they're a marine in Fallujah or an ordinary citizen walking by the Hudson River is going to be uploading images that used to be something that went through elaborate newsroom angst and also government censorship. So anything you want to see about this war is out there on YouTube or some blog somewhere. So the images are out there, the question is whether the official policy � and of course there's a long tradition of that that governments take years, maybe decades, to catch up with what's going on at the marketplace.

MULLINS: Based on what you know, David, about the way the appearance of caskets in the media has affected general views of conflict, of wars that we're involved in � I don't want you to make any predictions, but in terms of what you're going to be looking for, whether there might be an impact when a casket is now shown. What will you be thinking?

PERLMUTTER: I think that it's simply less of a political issue than it ever was � and I'm specifically speaking about Iraq now. Afghanistan is a separate issue, and there I think you will find this administration, as the years drag on, and we don't know how long this war is going to continue � I think they're going to eventually have the same concerns. As you know, the Iraq war, the media coverage waxed and waned. There were times where it seemed like there was nothing else on television and then as the war progressed, there were months where it was a backwater press coverage. If we're going to be seeing, every other day, a minute on the evening news and all over YouTube of the coffin of the day coming home, I think you're going to begin to see some concern with the administration and you're probably going to see some effects on the public debate about the war. Yes.

MULLINS: All right. Thank you very much. David Perlmutter, whose newest book is �Blog Wars: The New Political Battleground.� He's a journalism professor at the University of Kansas and a veteran documentary photographer. Thanks very much.

PERLMUTTER: Thank you.