Sunday, November 1, 2009

Covering the Cost of War

On September 18, Defense Secretary Robert Gates lifed the 18 year old ban on media coverage of the return of the flag draped coffins of fallen soldiers, which was originally imposed by President Bush during the first Gulf War. President Obama, back in February of this year, said that he's considering lifting the ban and asked Secretary Gates to review the policy. The decision to lift the ban was made after a consultation process and polls showing that Americans support showing the coffins. Under the new policy families of fallen soldiers will have to give their consent. The family of Sgt. Dale Griffin, who was killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb, was the first to give their consent, and the President attended the ceremony. The new policy, by the way, is consistent with the one at Arlington National Cemetary where military funerals are held.

Upon lifting the ban, Secretary Gates said "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."

It seems, then, that the argument that was driving the new policy was one of choice. In these matters, according to the government, it is the family, not the military, that should make such a decision. That may very well be true. Grief and mourning is first and foremost a private matter, and I would be extremely reluctant to go against the wishes of a family that has just lost its loved one. I think, however, that lifting the ban is a good idea not only because of the choice element Secretary Gates referred to.

Wars have costs. When the battleground is far away from the homeland, these costs are rarely transmitted to those back home. Unless you know someone who died, or know someone who lost someone, the chances of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq affecting your daily life are slim. Because the U.S. doesn't have mandatory conscription, and given that most people don't know someone who serves, the chances of you coming into contact with images of war are also very little. I don't know what effects these pictures do have. Experts say that pictures alone don't make much of a difference and that the broader context of whether the war is worth the cost is what ultimately determines public opinion. Still, I suppose that these pictures could contribute to that calculation, with the public learning, and seeing, what the cost really is.

Of course, this doesn't mean that such pictures will necessarily create anti-war sentiments. Similar pictures from a terrorist attack, for example, could actually contribute to public opinion supporting military action. President Clinton, for example, used his discretion to lift the ban to film the return of the bodies from the terrorist attack on USS Cole, and was criticized by some for doing that.

At any rate, lifting the ban subject to family approval seems like a sensible policy to me. Wars have painful costs, and it's important that a public removed from the battlefield get a sense, however skewed, of what such costs entail. It may or may not change public opinion, but it is something we should be more cognizant of.


  1. Great post. Aside from the concerns about privacy (as well as possible First Amendment worries), one rationale for banning photographs of war coffins is similar to excluding certain evidence in court because of its possible prejudicial effect. Jury members are not allowed to see or hear evidence when the prejudicial effect of the evidence is deemed to outweigh its probative value. Both of these rules have justifications that are not only rooted in assumptions about human psychology but also reflect our beliefs about how choices about these matters should be made.

    Your post implicitly criticizes the belief. I don't necessarily disagree with your criticism, but the reasons for your objections should be made more clear, especially since there is a myriad of ways to publicize the costs of war, including using figures, statistical data, or publication of the names and the pictures of the dead.

  2. Good post, Adam. I missed this announcement, and I'm glad to learn of it. Like you, I think lifting the ban, but requiring family approval seems appropriate.

    I certainly have expertise to address Greta's comment about an implicit criticism of the rules of evidence as they pertain to potentially prejudicial information. I wonder, though, if such rules of evidence - which are, no doubt, necessary in a court - are out of place when applied to public discourse. I tend to think that as much information as possible should be made available to citizens, and then it is up to them, collectively and individually, to sort through it.


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