Casualty photos remind us of war's awful cost

May 02, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - We used to know them by name.

Maybe you remember. American soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan and every time one died, we learned his name. Not only that, reporters told us about his life, introduced us to his newly bereft widow and suddenly fatherless children. Made us feel the weight of that death.

You had to know it couldn't last. Had to know that, as the casualty count mounted, it would become impossible to know the dead as individual men and women. At some point, they would become "casualties" in much the same way raindrops become a thunderstorm. And death would lose the ability to hurt us in the way it did when we knew their names.

Then one sudden day, you open your paper or your browser and find yourself facing row upon uniform row of coffins, all draped with American flags, the red, white and blue of them so crisp and vivid it is almost painful.

And hurt falls on you like rocks.

As you're no doubt aware, the Pentagon was angered when pictures of coffins containing the remains of American soldiers turned up online and in newspapers. This was the work of two people. One, a Tucson, Ariz., writer and Web master, obtained several hundred such pictures through a Freedom of Information Act request. Separately, a woman working for a Pentagon contractor photographed coffins in Kuwait. She and her husband, another employee, were fired.

The government's stated reasoning is that its photo ban protects the privacy of grieving military families. It's an argument that is, to put it mildly, difficult to accept at face value. One is at a loss to understand how anyone's privacy is infringed upon by photographs of anonymous coffins.

No, the administration's true concern seems transparent. Namely, that casualty photos will galvanize opposition to the war in Iraq.

The fear grows from the Vietnam experience, of course, from the conventional wisdom that holds that media coverage of returning casualties soured the public on that war.

Which is the truth, but not the whole truth. What really soured people on Vietnam was the slow-dawning realization that it was a bad war - that our commanders were lying and our men dying in a place they ought never have been. The images only underscored the cost.

That is what casualty photos have done since the day Matthew Brady first trained his camera upon the Civil War dead. They remind us of the ruinous price of war. So there is always something somber and sacred in those pictures.

Would a steady diet of them turn public opinion more firmly against the Iraq war? That misses the point.

Whether one supports or opposes this or any other war, we all come to the same place, eventually. Meaning that place where it is no longer possible to know the dead by name, to feel the weight of individual loss. This is only human nature. We lose sight of water drops in the cascade of rain.

So photographs of the honored dead are valuable because they remind us what it means when we use that word "casualties." Reminds us that we're talking about a life lost. About a man shot through the eye, a woman whose body wound up in pieces. About a mother's tears, a widow's fears, a child whose sleep will never be quite as secure again.

For all the administration's claims that its photo ban honors the private pain of military families, the truth is that we honor those families more when we share, to whatever small degree we can, the loss they have sustained.

And when we are made to stand reverent before the awfulness of war.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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