Photos of the Fallen  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

Photos of the Fallen   

The controversy over coffin photos illustrates news organizations' frustrations with depicting death in the Iraq war.

By Rachel Smolkin
     


Somber images of flag-draped caskets arriving home from Iraq had been virtually absent from newspapers and television broadcasts until two unrelated events coincided in April, giving the public a rare glimpse of these powerful photos and igniting a debate over how the Pentagon has banned them.

During this war, the media have wrestled with how much brutality to show, like in April when news organizations agonized about showing the charred bodies of four U.S. contractors killed in Fallujah, and in May the images of U.S. soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating captured Iraqis. And they've struggled with showing death at all--even when the images weren't gory, like when "Nightline" sparked controversy by devoting a whole broadcast to reading the names and showing the faces of U.S. troops killed in Iraq.

The Pentagon has tried for some time to quash images of returning war dead.

The ban dates to 1991 and the Persian Gulf War, when the Pentagon put a stop to media coverage of coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the primary arrival point. But the policy was not consistently followed during the next decade, even at Dover. In March 2003, as war in Iraq again loomed, the Pentagon issued a directive it said was established around November 2000. It asserted there would be no arrival ceremonies for, "or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from" air bases.

On Sunday, April 18, 10 days after receiving a photo of flag-draped coffins being secured inside a cargo plane at Kuwait International Airport, the Seattle Times published the picture and an accompanying story on its front page. Tami Silicio, then a cargo worker in Kuwait, had taken the photograph because she was deeply moved by the painstaking handling of the fallen soldiers' caskets. She sent it to her friend Amy Katz, who decided to call the Times, Silicio's hometown paper.

"After watching these guys take such great care, how they load and the way they work with the fallen heroes, it's amazing," Silicio said in late April, speaking by cell phone from Kuwait. "Then I got up on the plane and thought, 'Wow.' Something told me to just take several shots and put the camera away."

Barry Fitzsimmons, a photo editor who had been at the Times only two months, received the photo from Katz on April 8. He thought the picture was "incredible" but worried its publication would cost Silicio her job. Over the next nine days, as Times writer Hal Bernton began working on a companion story, Fitzsimmons exchanged more than a dozen phone calls and some 40 e-mails with Silicio and Katz, urging Silicio to consider the consequences. "The story is so good, we can use the story, but if you feel uncomfortable at all, we won't use the picture," he told Silicio.

Late Saturday morning, April 17, Silicio told him to go for it. It ran under the headline, "The somber task of honoring the fallen."

Silicio's employer, Maytag Aircraft Corp., fired her, as well as her husband and co-worker, David Landry. But it was too late for the Pentagon to stop widespread dissemination of the photo. A torrent of similar images appeared in newspapers and on TV broadcasts and the Internet.

The day Silicio was fired, Russ Kick, a writer and anti-government-secrecy activist, checked his post office box and found a CD from the Air Force. It contained 361 photos in response to a Freedom of Information request he had filed in November requesting all photographs showing caskets of U.S. military personnel at Dover from February 2003 to the present. Kick later learned 73 photos were of the Columbia astronauts; the remaining 288 depicted war fatalities.

When Kick read in the Washington Post last October that images taken at bases could not be released because of the Pentagon directive, he figured the military was taking photos, even if journalists weren't. "This request doesn't have a chance," Kick recalls thinking, "but what have I got to lose by trying?"

His request, predictably, was denied. He appealed to the Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and to his "amazement," the ruling was reversed in April. He posted the images on his Web site (www.thememoryhole.org) the night of April 21.

Silicio's firing and Kick's photos together ignited a media maelstrom. ABC and NBC led their evening newscasts with the story, and many newspapers ran the images.

But Pentagon officials quickly halted further distribution of the photos and reaffirmed the ban, saying it protected the privacy of servicemen and their families. "To be very frank with you, 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," Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Molino said at an April 22 briefing.

Media analysts blasted the Pentagon's ban.

"It's impossible for me to imagine a grounds for withholding those pictures either on privacy grounds or on national security grounds," says Edward Wasserman, Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Because the soldiers inside the coffins are not identified, he sees no basis, "apart from information management," for withholding the images.

Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, says the public has a right to the full story of war. "This ban, coupled with the media's own sensitivity about offending the families of service members or Americans in general, conspire to give an unbalanced view in the face of war," McMasters says. "Americans shouldn't be allowed through either official policy or unofficial policy to look away when bad things happen, and the press does have a role."

Silicio wasn't aware of the Pentagon's ban when she snapped the photo but hopes her picture will help Americans form their own opinions about the war"

"It's just given the public a chance to talk about their views on a lot of things and express themselves," she said after returning home in late April. "The floor is open now to give Americans the opportunity to speak from their hearts. And that's what the picture has done."


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