Coffin Controversy

As has been reported widely, the “ban” on media coverage of servicemembers’ coffins returning through Dover Air Force Base, Del., has been lifted with one caveat — the final decision will be left to family members.

Defense Secretary (and occasional superhero) Robert M. Gates has made what seems to be a reasonable call (and maybe even for the right reasons), though the subject remains polarizing.

Love it or hate it, photographing deceased military members has historical precedence. From corpses on Civil War battlefields to those killed on the beaches in World War II to the similarly flag-draped coffins of Vietnam, a variety of images has been snapped and widely published. But times change, and how DoD implements its “new” guidelines is anyone’s guess. 

In the aftermath of the compromise, the National Press Photographers Association applauded the decision in the name of the First Amendment. According to USA Today, organization President Bob Carey said, “This is a major step to having an open government.” (One would hope this was taken out of context.) 

Opponents of the revised policy include many families and veterans’ organization like the VFW and American Legion. Some have voiced concern over added stress on families, to include unintended pressure on loved ones to make the trip to Dover, regardless of financial circumstances. 

The infamous ban went into effect nearly two decades ago under President George H.W. Bush and has been under fire ever since. First Amendment? Right to privacy? The latter is trickier than the former if we call in the lawyers. One’s journey to a final resting place seems a solemn and private event. Swarming paparazzi might be the last thing DoD wants, but in letting this genie out of its bottle, anything’s possible, (and quite possibly at the expense of grieving families). 

And this really should be about those who remain, their lives altered forever. How will DoD work this? Will the casualty assistance officer say, “I’m sorry for your loss, but would you mind if news outlets photograph [insert name here]?” Will the “yeses” be removed from the aircraft for photographers and the “nos” removed once the media have been cleared? 

What if “much adieu” and no cameras show? Does that make it worse? 

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