Coffins Off-Limits for TV News
- Curtains Ordered for Media Coverage of Returning Coffins
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their
military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the
remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped caskets.
To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution:
It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news
coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all
In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive arrived from the
Pentagon at U.S. military bases. "There will be no arrival ceremonies
for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to
or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to
include interim stops," the Defense Department said, referring to the
major ports for the returning remains.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy actually dates
from about November 2000 -- the last days of the Clinton
administration -- but it apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as
images of caskets returning from the Afghanistan war appeared on
television broadcasts and in newspapers until early this year. Though
Dover Air Force Base, which has the military's largest mortuary, has
had restrictions for 12 years, others "may not have been familiar
with the policy," the spokeswoman said. This year, "we've really
tried to enforce it."
President Bush's opponents say he is trying to keep the spotlight off
the fatalities in Iraq. "This administration manipulates information
and takes great care to manage events, and sometimes that goes too
far," said Joe Lockhart, who as White House press secretary joined
President Bill Clinton at several ceremonies for returning
remains. "For them to sit there and make a political decision because
this hurts them politically -- I'm outraged."
Pentagon officials deny that. Speaking on condition of anonymity,
they said the policy covering the entire military followed a victory
over a civil liberties court challenge to the restrictions at Dover
and relieves all bases of the difficult logistics of assembling
family members and deciding which troops should get which types of
One official said only individual graveside services, open to cameras
at the discretion of relatives, give "the full context" of a
soldier's sacrifice. "To do it at several stops along the way doesn't
tell the full story and isn't representative," the official said.
A White House spokesman said Bush has not attended any memorials or
funerals for soldiers killed in action during his presidency as his
predecessors had done, although he has met with families of fallen
soldiers and has marked the loss of soldiers in Memorial Day and
Sept. 11, 2001, remembrances.
The Pentagon has previously acknowledged the effect on public opinion
of the grim tableau of caskets being carried from transport planes to
hangars or hearses. In 1999, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said a decision to use military
force is based in part on whether it will pass "the Dover test," as
the public reacts to fatalities.
Ceremonies for arriving coffins, not routine during the Vietnam War,
became increasingly common and elaborate later. After U.S. soldiers
fell in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Kenya, Afghanistan and
elsewhere, the military often invited in cameras for elaborate
ceremonies for the returning remains, at Andrews Air Force Base,
Dover, Ramstein and elsewhere -- sometimes with the president
President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in
Pakistan, Egypt and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran.
President Ronald Reagan participated in many memorable ceremonies,
including a service at Camp Lejeune in 1983 for 241 Marines killed in
Beirut. Among several events at military bases, he went to Andrews in
1985 to pin Purple Hearts to the caskets of marines killed in San
Salvador, and, at Mayport Naval Station in Florida in 1987, he
eulogized those killed aboard the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf.
During President George H.W. Bush's term, there were ceremonies at
Dover and Andrews for Americans killed in Panama, Lebanon and aboard
the USS Iowa.
But in early 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon
said there would be no more media coverage of coffins returning to
Dover, the main arrival point; a year earlier, Bush was angered when
television networks showed him giving a news briefing on a split
screen with caskets arriving.
But the photos of coffins arriving at Andrews and elsewhere continued
to appear through the Clinton administration. In 1996, Dover made an
exception to allow filming of Clinton's visit to welcome the 33
caskets with remains from Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's plane
crash. In 1998, Clinton went to Andrews to see the coffins of
Americans killed in the terrorist bombing in Nairobi. Dover also
allowed public distribution of photos of the homecoming caskets after
the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
The photos of coffins continued for the first two years of the
current Bush administration, from Ramstein and other bases. Then, on
the eve of the Iraq invasion, word came from the Pentagon that other
bases were to adopt Dover's policy of making the arrival ceremonies
"Whenever we go into a conflict, there's a certain amount of guidance
that comes down the pike," said Lt. Olivia Nelson, a spokeswoman for
Dover. "It's a consistent policy across the board. Where it used to
apply only to Dover, they've now made it very clear it applies to
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