Dead men talking?

A row over pictures of dead Americans and Iraqis is a sorry substitute for a debate about war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Should Americans have the right to look at photos of military coffins draped in the Stars and Stripes returning from the messy battlefields of postwar Iraq?

This is the big debate stateside. In early April Russ Kick, a lone free speech activist who runs a blog called The Memory Hole, challenged the US Air Force under America’s freedom of information legislation to release 361 photos of coffins arriving home, taken at Dover Air Base in Delaware over the past year. The Pentagon has tried to keep such images away from the public gaze. Kick believed the photos were in the public interest – he won his freedom of information action, published the 300+ pictures on his site, and watched as a political storm brewed (1).

The photos have since appeared in some of America’s major dailies and in most British newspapers. Anti-war activists hail Kick’s actions as a victory for free speech and a potential ‘turning point’ in how Americans view the war in Iraq. Some commentators claim the ‘pictures of flag-draped coffins could kill Bush’s re-election hopes’ (2). The Pentagon has reprimanded the Air Force for giving in to the freedom of information challenge, arguing that ‘we don’t want the remains of our service members, who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified’. It has barred the release of any further photos of returning military coffins – though, as one report points out, thanks to the internet, ‘the photos are already everywhere’ (3).

For all the talk of free speech and a rise in anti-war sentiment, the clash over the photos of America’s war dead shows up the degraded state of debate over Iraq. It provides a snapshot of a war where the warmongers have little belief in what they are doing and are easily rattled by reminders of the war’s consequences, and an anti-war opposition driven more by cynicism and opportunism than political or moral principle.

The Bush administration may be furious that the photos got published, fretting that they will turn even more Americans against the war and possibly cost Bush the November election – but Bush officials did much to create a situation where American casualties in Iraq have assumed a powerful political purchase. The Bush administration made avoiding casualties, both American and Iraqi, a big issue from the outset. On 5 March 2003, two weeks before the war started, the US Department of Defence, no less, declared that ‘the US military will go to great lengths to limit civilian deaths’. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘If force becomes necessary, it is clear that coalition forces would take great care to avoid civilian casualties’ (4). Earlier this month, Bush officials revealed to the press that the president spent Easter ‘praying for American casualties to ebb in Iraq’ (5).

This desire to avoid casualties is not driven by a newfound respect among the US elite for the sanctity of human life, whether it be a US marine or an Iraqi civilian. Rather it points to a broader uncertainty about the war at the heart of the Bush administration. When those who launch wars believe in what they are doing and are confident that it’s the right thing, they tend to see casualties, on both sides, as a risk worth taking and a price worth paying. The Bushies, by contrast, seemed to think they could launch a risk-free war, where shock’n’awe would get rid of Saddam and allow US soldiers to walk into Basra and Baghdad surrounded by cheering crowds. The reality has proved rather more messy; over 700 Americans have been killed since the war started in March 2003.

As the Guardian’s Mark Lawson argues: ‘A leader’s most profound decision is to ask his soldiers to die in a war. If this is a leader’s sincere belief, then it’s his or her prerogative, at least until the next election – but it is not acceptable to pretend that the consequence of his or her decision is anything but death.’ (6) It would seem to be a lack of ‘sincere belief’ on the part of the Bush administration that allowed civilian and military casualties to assume such importance. By declaring that it would do everything it could to avoid Iraqi and American deaths, US officials helped to turn death in Iraq into a symbol of failure, a sign that things are going horribly wrong; by appearing defensive about the loss of American lives, the Pentagon ensured that photos of American coffins became sufficient to cause political quakes.

It is also disingenuous of the coalition and its supporters to accuse those who have published the photos of America’s war dead of turning grief into a political spectacle. In recent years both American and British governments have made mileage out of ceremonies for war dead. In America there were few such ceremonies during the Korean or Vietnam wars; they became common and, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘increasingly elaborate’, in the 1980s and 90s, for US soldiers who fell in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Somalia and elsewhere (7). Such ceremonies played a political role for US leaders, where relatively few casualties from fairly small-time military engagements could become ‘elaborate’ symbols of America’s commitment to global peace and security.

The British only started flying back their war dead during the Falklands War of 1982; before that the dead tended to be buried in a far-flung corner of a foreign field. But where in the Falklands War the British dead were flown home after the war had ended, during last year’s war in Iraq they were flown home, in full view of the media, while the war was still on. That too was a political stunt, and a grisly one at that.

On the other side of the clash of the coffin photos, there is little positive in the campaign to get the pictures released and published. Anti-war activists and sceptical-about-war journalists have said that the pictures of rows of coffins show us the ‘reality of war’, and could help ‘wake people up to what is happening in Iraq’. Some have linked the publication of the coffin photos with demands for more gritty and realistic reporting from inside Iraq. ‘Television should show us more corpses from Iraq’, argues Michela Wrong in the New Statesman. ‘The sight of what violence can do to the human body is the most potent anti-war message around.’ (8)

Of course journalists should oppose the Pentagon’s restrictions on the publication of the coffin photos, and we should see war as it really is rather than getting the sanitised, watered-down version where dead civilians become ‘collateral damage’. But there seems to be something deeply cynical and morbid about today’s desire to show us pictures and footage of dead Americans and Iraqis.

Michela Wrong says she is ‘sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’. She thinks we need to see more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq because it could help to make us anti-war. ‘We are literal-minded creatures. To believe something, we need to see it’, she writes (9).

This looks like the journalism of attachment taken to a new low, where the journalist’s role becomes one of seeking out grisly scenes of dead children and dismembered body parts in an attempt to wake the viewing and reading public from their ignorance. But taking photos or film footage of the dead, whether in neat coffins in Delaware or on the bloody streets of Fallujah, is not the same as making an argument against war – and it is a sorry substitute for journalistic investigation and interrogation of the facts. Horrible photos from war zones should not be banned, but nor should they be seen as an end in themselves, a way of convincing us of an argument.

Indeed, making people aware that horrible things are happening in a war zone does not automatically shift their opinions; sometimes wars in which the most unspeakable things occur, such as the Second World War, win widespread public backing. Attached journalists want to show us blood, guts and gore from Iraq (in case any of us are labouring under the illusion that it’s a tea party rather than a war zone), but if their aim is to change hearts and minds they’ll have to try a bit harder.

In the past, classic, dramatic war photos derived their power by encapsulating a general public mood about war. Today, some journalists and anti-war activists seem to think that images are all you need to create a mood. They want the media to show the most gruesome pictures they can find, in the hope that such pictures will expose Bush and his supporters and make everyone else anti-war. That’s the easy, and cynical, way out – surely what we really need about the war in Iraq are some hard political arguments.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See The Memory Hole

(2) Bring out your dead, Mark Lawson, Guardian, 24 April 2004

(3) An image of grief returns, Amanda Ripley, Time, 25 April 2004

(4) US military works to avoid civilian deaths, collateral damage, Kathleen Rhem, US Department of Defence, 5 March 2003

(5) Bush prays for a drop in Iraq casualties, Scott Lindlaw, Associated Press, 11 April 2004

(6) Bring out your dead, Mark Lawson, Guardian, 24 April 2004

(7) Curtains ordered for media coverage of returning coffins, Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 21 October 2003

(8) World view, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 26 April 2004

(9) World view, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 26 April 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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