Flag-Draped Coffins Don't Show Us What War Is
I've often felt at least a bit uneasy about complaints that the Bush administration didn't allow the media to photograph the coffins arriving in the USA from Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics of the policy had a point, but they were often apt to put too fine a point on it.
And so, I didn't think it was particularly good news when The New York Times reported on Feb. 11 that Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated "that he was open to allowing the media to photograph the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers as their bodies and remains are returned to the United States."
Fast on his feet and supple with his tongue amid the shifting winds of political power in Washington, the Pentagon's civilian chief told journalists: "If the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better."
Gates, the Times reported, "said he was ordering a review of the military policy that bars photographers from taking pictures of the return of the coffins, most of which go through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and set a 'short deadline' for a decision."
Opponents of the warfare state are apt to assume — and argue — that the red, white and blue images of coffins could have a powerful effect on the public and spur opposition to continuing this country's overseas war efforts. But I'm not so sure.
The same caveats that Susan Sontag raised about visual media images of battlefield anguish might apply to flag-draped coffins. Her book "Regarding the Pain of Others," published in 2003, questioned some common assumptions about the effects of grisly war imagery in news media.
"Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses," she wrote. "A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen."
As happens so often among news watchers, seemingly perceptive observation might involve appreciable amounts of projection.
Sontag's contrarian assessment of war images made me reevaluate my own assumptions. In response, I wrote in my book "War Made Easy" that ambiguity is part of the process that we bring to the media-consuming table: "Visual images may be among the most powerful messages we receive about war, but those graphic messages still leave it to us to assign them meaning. And we, in turn, assess meaning not so much because of what's in front of our eyes as because of what's behind them — our assumptions and attitudes — influenced and shaped, probably much more than we would prefer to admit, by cues from political leaders, pundits and reporters who function as role models with their reactions, including what they say and don't say."
What remains unsaid, in the daily grind of media machinery, may be the most telling. In the absence of commensurate responses to horrors of war, it's easy for faraway people to unconsciously figure that war isn't so horrible after all.
Are we supposed to seriously believe that photos of flag-draped coffins can convey what war is like?
Will such photos stir the passions of introspection, remorse, empathy and determination to find less violent approaches to solving problems? Or will those photos mostly excite the nationalistic pride that exalts the fallen as the bravest of the brave and heighten the fervor of the facile notion that others must die to affirm that the earlier dead did not die in vain?
In his enthusiasm for maintaining some kind of U.S. occupation force in Iraq and escalating the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, the secretary of defense has no reason to fear photos of those flag-draped caskets. Unless the mindset and context of how the public sees that photography undergo a major shift, war will go on.
Norman Solomon wrote the book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," which has been adapted into a documentary film of the same name. For information, go to: www.normansolomon.com
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