ANALYSIS: Is ban on coffin coverage a legitimate wartime tactic?

Some see restrictions on images of war as a political ploy, others as a way to usurp an enemy's advantage. For certain, it's an issue with many dimensions.

Some see restrictions on images of war as a political ploy, others as a way to usurp an enemy's advantage. For certain, it's an issue with many dimensions.

Israel knows something about terrorism and the media that America has yet to learn. According to an article in January's Atlantic Monthly, Israeli paramedics do not wait for investigators to arrive before removing bodies from the scene of a suicide bombing, as we do at crime scenes in America. Instead, they whisk away the carnage as quickly as possible, before the press arrives. The goal is to minimize the images of blood and broken bodies on the evening news, thereby depriving the terrorists of their opportunity to spread fear over the airwaves. The American press as well as media watchdog groups have been raising a small fury lately - though smaller than one might expect - about newly enforced Pentagon rules forbidding the media from filming the return of service members' coffins to Dover Air Force Base from Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar rules are now keeping the press away from funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Critics says these rules - as well as President Bush's failure to attend a single military funeral or be photographed with a coffin - are a blatant attempt to shield Bush from the political cost of growing public disillusionment with the war. The image effect However, there's a new argument gaining ground in Washington, one that suggests Bush is keen to what the Israelis figured out long ago: Keep the images of death off the air, and you take away one of the enemy's greatest weapons. After all, the insurgents in Iraq know they can't win back their country militarily - they're outmanned and outgunned. Instead, they want to erode America's will to fight by making the emotional price of staying too high. Could it be that Bush's avoidance of the images of war is not a political PR play, but instead a prescient strategy for usurping the enemy's intent? This idea was most cogently presented by columnist Charles Krauthammer in a December 8 Time magazine column. "That is the enemy's entire war objective: to inflict pain. And that is why it would be a strategic error to amplify and broadcast that pain," he writes. "The enemy knows America's weakness - a general aversion to war, stemming largely from a profound concern for the individual. The enemy knows our aversion to casualties led us to withdraw not just from Vietnam but from Somalia and Beirut." Bush supporters and conservative pundits have been giving the argument good play on political talk shows lately. But it does raise a number of questions: Does the administration's interest in maintaining public support for the occupation of Iraq trump a citizen's right to witness the consequences of his government's actions? Does this explanation truly represent the administration's thinking, or is it simply a justification thought up after the fact by loyal allies? And perhaps most important, why does the administration assume that images of military casualties will necessarily weaken - not strengthen - the American will to fight? While military spokespeople declined to discuss the matter on the record, some scoffed at the suggestion that the ban at Dover was part of any political strategy (one called the Krauthammer theory "absurd"); others said cameras were banned strictly out of respect to the families of service members. But all stressed an often-overlooked fact that would seem to dismiss the argument: It was the senior Bush's administration that in 1991 imposed the ban at Dover. Hence, they say any discussion of attempts by the current President to stifle images of war simply miss the point. But the 1991 ban applied only to Dover - the primary, though not exclusive, receiving point for service members killed overseas. The current administration extended the ban to all such facilities immediately before troops marched into Iraq. The restrictions at Arlington came even later. And even the Dover ban was only occasionally enforced until March. (Early last year, for example, NASA released photos of coffins containing the remains of the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia.) "The whole truth" Nonetheless, Ken Auletta - author of a 12-page article in the January 19 New Yorker entitled "Fortress Bush," which explored the full-contact style of media relations at the Bush White House - says Krauthammer's assertion cannot be dismissed outright. "There is some merit to that argument," he tells PRWeek. "Americans get impatient, and [images of returning coffins] would certainly weaken the administration's case for staying in Iraq." Ultimately however, he characterizes the argument as "half a truth." "The whole truth would include the fact that [those images] would weaken Bush politically." Auletta thinks the administration's political calculation is twofold, taking into account not just the public's aversion to casualties, but Bush's own limitations as an effective Mourner in Chief. "One, [such images] would remind Americans regularly of the losses in Iraq and arguably of the lack of planning that led to those losses," he offers. "And secondly, Bush is not as skilled on the compassion front as Clinton was. He tends to be a little stiff in those situations, particularly with the cameras, and they wouldn't show him necessarily in his best light. So to leave the politics out of the equation is not to tell the full story." Craig Shirley, conservative strategist and president of Virginia-based Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, looks beyond politics when discussing the issue. He points out that controlling the images of war is a time-tested American tradition, not specific to any one administration or even one political party. "During World War II, the War Department heavily restricted media access," he says. "It was something like three years before Life magazine ran pictures of dead GIs, and you never saw those images in newsreels." Furthermore, Shirley takes issue with the very mentality that assumes images of death necessarily erode a country's will to fight. "For years, the thinking was that bombing civilian targets as opposed to strategic targets would cut the backbone of a country at war. In fact, it's been shown to have the opposite effect," he says, citing Hitler's World War II bombing campaign against the British and a recent Pentagon study. "So there are two schools of thought: Do you not show [the images] to the public and protect their will, or do you show them and make people more cognizant of what they're fighting against, and thereby strengthen their will?" asks Shirley. "I come down on the side that more information is always better," he concludes. However, Shirley also points out a perspective that maybe no one had considered. He notes that the less footage there is of American casualties on US airwaves, the less footage terrorists have to use for their propaganda purposes. Intended consequence or not, it's a factor no American is likely to take issue with. There's one other group of Americans, loud though anonymous, who vociferously support Bush's policy: the families of those serving overseas. Newspapers around the country printed scores of letters in 2003 from wives, husbands, and parents defending the media restrictions while criticizing the press for wanting to use their personal tragedies to sell newspapers. And while they may not be the most influential constituency, their personal investment in the issue ensures a loud backlash should the ban be lifted. If for no other reason, their attention to the issue makes it unlikely that there will be any change in an election year.

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