Killed in Action
By Martha Brant
Friday 17 October 2003
This morning's press release from U.S. Central Command brought bad news yet again. "One 220th Military Police Brigade soldier was killed and two were wounded in an improvised explosive device attack in the Baghdad area at approximately 7:50 a.m. Oct. 17," it read when I logged on.
DEATH ANNOUNCEMENTS ARE arriving almost daily for American soldiers killed in Iraq. It's hard to put a weekly average on the number of dead because some weeks there are no casualties. But by my unofficial tally, somewhere between three and six soldiers die every week in Iraq.
And yet, it often feels like the American public has no sense of the steady trickle of killed and wounded. I've had some people tell me that it's our fault; the media are not covering the deaths the way we did during the war. Others say it's because the numbers are so small compared to, say, Vietnam, the news doesn't catch people's attention.
I'll offer a different reason: there are no pictures. As much as I hate to admit this as a print reporter, images do sear into people's mind more than words. Nick Ut's photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc became synonymous with the Vietnam War. She was the terrified little girl running naked, covered in napalm. Television images of caskets and body bags also changed public opinion about the war.
But there are no images of flag-draped coffins in this war to remind people of the human price being paid. That's because the media are prohibited from filming or photographing soldiers' remains being sent home. Most fallen soldiers' bodies get sent back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they are identified and prepared for burial. During the Vietnam War, photographers and film crews were often at Dover taking pictures of the "dignified transfer of remains." But for more than a decade, the Department of Defense has cut off that access.
"It's out of respect for the families," explains Dover's Lt. Olivia Nelson. Even though none of the bodies are identified, letting the media in would not show the proper reverence for the dead. Plus, she explains, Dover is just a way station. The transfer is not ceremonial--even though an honor guard carries the body and a flag is draped over the container. Nelson argues that if the media were to show the offloading of remains it would create pressure on the families to be there when the body arrives rather than await delivery in the privacy of their homes.
But, of course, such images would create pressure on the administration, too. "Restricting access to Dover is part of a piece," says veteran war correspondent George Wilson, who did two tours in Vietnam. "It's designed to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. That's not limited to this administration, but it has accelerated."
Military leaders today, many of whom learned to distrust the press during the Vietnam era, consider sustaining the national will to be part of their mission. Rather than leave it to the politicians to explain and justify the war, they take public relations upon themselves.
Media manipulation is nothing new. Twenty years ago this month, there was a terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. A total of 239 U.S. service members and more than 40 French paratroopers died in the attack. Cameras were allowed to film the caskets coming home, but the bodies were brought back in waves of 10 or so. No one ever got a picture of all 200-plus coffins lined up.
Showing remains sometimes seems to depend less on policy than politics. When CIA operative Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed in Afghanistan in December 2001, the DOD had no problem letting the media in to witness the return of his remains to Andrews Air Force Base. But then, his death only stoked support for the war in Afghanistan.
Attempts to change the policy at Dover have failed. Numerous news organizations have complained, but the one lawsuit brought by the ACLU back in 1991 was dismissed. The U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington said that First Amendment rights did not grant the media access to government property even if it would give people a more accurate--and literal--picture of what's going on.
WAR STORIES MAIL CALL
Hundreds of readers responded to T. Trent Gegax's column last week on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to restructure the military and its effect on reservists. Some of their letters:
Sgt. Matthew C. Binko, from Tamarac, Fla., wrote:
I am a civil-affairs NCO stationed in Baghdad serving my first year of active duty. While I serve with many soldiers who are completing their second year (the first was done most likely in Afghanistan), I find it disconcerting that so many first-year civil-affairs soldiers are sniveling as much as they are. I can honestly say that I've never done "one weekend a month, two weeks a year." And I never expected to. What began as a window of opportunity to experience the world has become a chance to prove that my Gen-X and -Y brethren can compete for the title of "greatest generation." Now I feel that while WWII soldiers sacrificed years of their lives to protect our freedoms, soldiers today can't bear to miss the football season. For argument's sake, let's say the reservists are rotated after six or nine months. That means the CA community will be used up that much quicker. And they'll be out here in another six months. And their employers will lose them for a second time. And they'll be complaining to their congresspersons. I'll stick it out here for as long as it takes to ensure that I, my younger brother, and my future children never have to come here ever again for combat.
Jack Haskins of Spotsylvania, Va., wrote:
Why don't you emphasize the good things we are doing in Iraq? Practically all I see and hear from 99 percent of the news people is the crying of how bad everything is and how the clerics are practically running the show! But they are not! But with your continued help perhaps you can make Iraq into another Vietnam! Wake up and be Americans before you ruin this wonderful country.
An anonymous parent wrote:
My son is in the gulf right now. This is his fourth tour to the gulf. If I told you what I think of Dubya's war, they (the present administration) would have me sent to Guantanamo and never heard from again.
A soldier who withheld his or her name "due to career concerns," and hails from "Anytown in America," wrote:
Reservists are treated as second-class soldiers by the active component. They get none of the high-tech body armor, little of the new war gear, little of the uniforms and are expected to perform the same as the active component. It is true insanity as a reservist to go without needed equipment while the active duty has piles. If this were a business, it would have gone bankrupt a long time ago. I am a reserve veteran of Gulf War I and Gulf War II. The Reserve/Guard is headed for an internal collapse of historic proportions. The king has no clothes and very few are willing to tell him.
Jump to TO Features for Sunday 19 October 2003