Dover Photo Ban's End Points Lens Toward The Toll Of War

July 19, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

The photograph on the front page and Web site of The Baltimore Sun could not be more stark. In part, it's the composition: a series of repeated horizontal lines, from the red and white stripes of the American flags draping two caskets, one resting on a loader, the other being carried from the aircraft by a team of camouflage-clad Marines and both perfectly level with the ground.

But the true power of the photograph lies beyond the image. The two Marines, on a final journey home to Maryland after being killed in the war in Afghanistan, bear witness to the continuing and ever-mounting casualties there and in Iraq, conflicts that have remained largely out of sight and thus out of mind on the home front.

Until three months ago, an 18-year government ban kept the return of most fallen servicemen and -women at Dover Air Force Base hidden from view. The nominal reason was to shield grieving families from unwanted glare, but critics of the ban claimed it helped the previous administration mask the human cost of the increasingly unpopular wars.

So we've had this odd blind spot these past years, our military dead hidden from us, wars fought somewhere else and the ultimate sacrifices made by other people's sons and daughters, husbands and wives. And to be clear, it wasn't just the Pentagon or the White House that wanted to keep this from us; we were complicit in our own obliviousness. Even as we grew disenchanted with the Iraq war, the reaction was simply to avert our eyes.

In April, President Barack Obama lifted the ban. As long as the service members' survivors gave their approval and photographers and reporters followed a strict set of protocols designed to keep them away from the families, the news media now are allowed to record the arrival at Dover of their remains in what the military calls dignified transfers.

Since April 5, Dover has been the backdrop of 120 such homecomings, a spokesman for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation Center told me. (The number was current as of Thursday.) Belying the notion that relatives shrink from outside attention, more than 70 percent of the fallen service members' families - 86 of them - agreed to news coverage.

The families of Marine Sgt. Michael W. Heede, 22, of Edgewood and Staff Sgt. David S. Spicer, 33, of Olney were among them. On Monday, they were killed in an IED explosion in Helmand province in Afghanistan, part of the growing toll of an intense summer offensive against the Taliban.

On Wednesday, their families watched as a team of Marines conveyed their flag-draped caskets off a plane and into a transport vehicle that drove slowly away, lights flashing and Marines and an airman holding salutes as it passed, Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts wrote in an article accompanying the photograph.

Heede's mother, Gloria Crothers, told Pitts after the solemn, mostly silent, 15-minute ceremony that the military had shown "the utmost respect."

It is an undeniably powerful image, and it's no wonder previous administrations have tried to control it.

Of course, at a time when cameras are in just about every cell phone, this was going to be increasingly difficult to suppress. In fact, even as the military dead were being, as then-Sen. Joe Biden said some years back, "essentially snuck back into the country under the cover of night," elsewhere, the country was turning positively necromaniacal.

I was thinking about this recently when the deaths of Michael Jackson and David Carradine were quickly followed by surreptitiously taken pictures of them in pre- or postmortem states. Even in death, or now maybe especially in death, the tabloid eye never blinks - whether it's paparazzi sticking a camera in Liam Neeson's stricken face after his wife Natasha Richardson's accidental death, or Farrah Fawcett giving multiple sickbed interviews before she died of cancer.

It's truly appalling that as celebrities are so eagerly and closely followed to their graves and beyond, so many of the 5,044 service members who as of Thursday have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past eight years get a fraction of the attention.

That might start changing, at least in small ways. Even before the ban on news coverage of the arrivals at Dover was lifted this spring, the issue flared up five years ago, when a private contractor was fired for taking and giving a photo of caskets bearing the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq to The Seattle Times newspaper.

It was a truly shocking photograph, again because of the repeated horizontal lines, in this case of rows of flag-draped coffins that seemed to extend into infinity, or at least the length of the cargo plane. But its shock also came from the fact that this photo was the first time, a year into the war against Iraq, that we had seen any image of the dead coming home.

Six years into the war, the images still bear a terrible power.

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