Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins

I’m sorting through my reaction to the release of several hundred photographs of the coffins of soldiers who have died in the war. The photographs themselves are powerful, unsettling in the anonymity of the coffins. I do think these photographs are important documents, and I firmly support the efforts to make them public. While I don’t believe the photos will change many people’s opinions about the war, I do think that these images provoke some kind of reflection, not just on the level of documentation but also on a second level that I’m still having trouble defining. I’ve been revising this paragraph for several minutes now, so I think it’s best to simply provide a little conext for the debate and to allow the photographs to speak for themselves.

The photographs of the coffins have now been widely distrubuted on the Web as this New York Times article notes. The release of photographs of soldiers’ coffins breaks with a Defense Department policy instituted in 1991 during the first Gulf War. The DoD has justified this policy on the grounds that it protects the privacy of grieving families; however, many anti-war activists have suggested that this ban is actually designed to prevent average Americans from seeing the devastating consequences of the war. There is a degree to which I share the desire to respect the privacy of grieving families; however, the claim that “only individual graveside services give the full context of a soldier’s sacrifice” seems imprecise to me. I don’t think that any image can truly represent this sacrifice, but I think we lose more by not making the effort towards representation.

Tami Silicio’s photograph, taken in Kuwait, originally appeared on Sunday in The Seattle Times, according to this article, which reports that Silicio and her husband were fired from their jobs for Silicio’s actions. The decision to publish the photograph (here’s an article from Sunday’s Seattle Times explaining the decision to publish) and Silicio’s firing have provoked a fairly public debate about whether or not the publication of this photograph was justified, and again, according to the Seattle Times article, readers have generally been supportive of their decision to publish it.

Complicating matters, about 350 additional photographs taken in Dover Air Force Base were released under a Freedom of Information Act request by Russ Kick, who runs the website,
The Memory Hole (includes Kick’s explanation of how he was able to obtain the photographs). According to the Washington Post, the Defense Department has again ordered that no more photographs be released. An earlier Washington Post article provides more context for this policy.

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