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Thursday, April 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Images of war dead a sensitive subject

Seattle Times staff reporter

The image was of row upon row of flag-draped coffins being loaded onto an Air Force cargo plane in Kuwait. They were American war dead, killed in a bloody month of fighting in Iraq. David Perlmutter, a professor at Louisiana State University, showed it to his class and asked: Would you have published it, as The Seattle Times did on Sunday?

Of the hundred or so in the class, most said no. But when asked to explain, Perlmutter said, they said that while "they didn't want to see the pictures, they said it's probably good we know that it's happening."

Americans have long struggled with the morality of showing images of war dead, especially fellow Americans.

Tami Silicio, a civilian contract worker, was fired yesterday for taking the picture of coffins being loaded in Kuwait and allowing The Times to publish it.

The Pentagon has banned the media from taking pictures of military caskets returning from war since 1991, citing concern for the privacy of grieving families and friends of the dead soldiers. The Bush administration issued a stern reminder of that policy in March 2003, shortly before the war in Iraq began.

Critics complain that the prohibition is an attempt by the administration to diminish the impact of the loss of American lives.

But whether the ban is a political tactic or is out of sincere concern for the families, the issue is more complex, said Perlmutter, the author of two books on war photography and a professor of mass communication.

"The image of dead Americans, especially the dead American soldier, is probably the most powerful image of war for Americans," he said. "It's the one that immediately strikes us in the gut, because we hate to see it but we recognize we may need to see it."

The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes captured this ambivalence in 1863 after viewing some of the first images of battlefield casualties being buried during the Civil War.

"Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations," he wrote. Once they did, he said, "Many, having seen it and dreamed of its horrors, would lock it up in some secret drawer ... as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented."

Military censors instituted a virtual blackout of such photos in World War I. That ban continued until nearly the end of World War II.

"The assumption was the public didn't want to see it, and that it would undermine the war effort," Perlmutter said. "The Normandy invasion was a success, but how would we have felt at the time if we had seen the pictures of all these dead American soldiers on the beaches?"

Images of war dead proliferated in Vietnam, and throughout the 1980s, the government regularly allowed the media to take pictures of coffins returning from Lebanon, Grenada and Panama to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the primary arrival point for returning American soldiers killed overseas.

But in 1991, as the United States embarked on its first major war since Vietnam, the policy shifted. In January of that year, the administration of the first President Bush began prohibiting media outlets from taking pictures of coffins being unloaded at Dover. It instituted a total ban in November of that year.

"There was an attempt to not have another Vietnam in the sense that the administration was not going to allow the media to sell the war, one way or the other," said John Louis Lucaites, a communications and culture professor at Indiana University who teaches a class called "Visualizing War."

In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld the ban after media outlets and some other organizations sued to have it lifted. Citing the need to reduce the hardship and protect the privacy of grieving families, the court held that the ban did not violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press.

The National Military Family Association, one of the largest military-advocacy groups, supports the policy. "The families that we've heard from are more interested in their privacy and would hope that people would be sensitive to them in their time of loss," said Kathy Moakler, deputy director of government relations for the organization.

Moakler, who has two children in the military, said The Times was right to tell Silicio's story and to describe the respectful process by which the dead are transported home.

But the photograph, she said, was an invasion of privacy for families who might be wondering if their dead loved one was in that array of coffins.

But even among military families, such feelings are not universal.

Marianne Brown, the stepmother of an Army reservist serving in Baghdad, said Silicio's photograph was long overdue. The Michigan resident belongs to a group of military families who support the publication of photographs of coffins.

"We have to show that, because that's what we're paying for" in Iraq, said Brown, a 52-year-old artist living in South Haven, Mich. "Let's show the truth — the death of our kids. Otherwise it's just statistics."

Veteran Bill Egan of Flagler Beach, Fla., praised Silicio's photo. He was a military photographer aboard the USS Missouri in the 1980s as it escorted oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.

"I see nothing wrong with showing coffins, especially flag-draped coffins, because it's a reminder of what these people have given up," said Egan, 63.

Lucaites of Indiana University said the image had a powerful, mechanistic quality. "It almost makes it appear as if these coffins are on a conveyer belt, going off into infinity."

And if you're the current administration, he said, "this is not an image you want visualized."

Staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report. Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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