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Sunday, July 4, 2004

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jeannine Guttman

War coverage brings array of passionate responses

Copyright 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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Today is Independence Day, and in that spirit I want to share some perspectives from readers on the question of whether the media should be present to record the return of America's war dead.

Currently, the Pentagon refuses to allow the press to be present when the coffins containing the remains of servicemen and women are returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. A recent vote on the Senate floor kept that ban in place, despite the protests of Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Olympia Snowe of Maine. The two Republicans joined a number of Democrats in trying to lift that ban, and thus allow press coverage.

A concern of lawmakers voting to keep the restrictions in place was the privacy of military families.

Last week, I asked Maine readers for their input. Most who responded said the press should be given this access. The scene at Dover is not specific to an individual; the coffins are not identified. If anything, one reader said, there is more invasion of family privacy at local services and funeral events than there would be at the larger, more anonymous procession at Dover.

Additionally, the readers said, chronicling the flag-draped caskets arriving at that air base is an act of respect and a media obligation. They said it is important for the public to pay tribute to these fallen warriors and to understand the high cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But one reader worried whether the media would use discretion with such images, and instead of handling the photography sensitively, subject audiences to non-stop footage of the caskets. Her concern: Granting media access is one question, but how the media will then use the images from that access is another.

Here are excerpts from some of the comments.

n Jim Mackell of Arundel: "I am a father who has a son currently serving in the Army in Iraq. He is on his second tour of duty there. Almost every day the thought passes through my mind that this could be the day something happens to him. The random mortar round, the odd RPG, a stray round from one of the millions of AK-47s that litter the country like pine needles in Maine. I was never concerned about winning the war, but I've always been concerned about winning (or losing) the peace.

"It's my opinion that the arrival of our dead at Dover should be covered as a news event. These men and women have died in the service of our country. If the publicity changes our actions in some way, then our actions weren't well justified. I tend to agree with Sen. McCain, 'We ought to know the casualties of war.'

"There were several articles approximately one month ago when unauthorized photos were published of the coffins being loaded in Iraq. A contractor's photo (first published in The Seattle Times) showed the coffins being draped with the U.S. flag and the care and reverence that was being used. That's important to me. To know that their sacrifice is being recognized."

Elaine Baker Duffus of Gray: "While I agree wholeheartedly in spirit with Sen. Snowe's respectful view that 'it's important for the nation to realize the extraordinary nature of the sacrifices and to see the flag-draped coffins returning ... (it's) a moving and poignant picture and it should be forever etched in the minds of all Americans,' I cannot ever again have the same faith in the media as she apparently does. Etched in my mind from late December 1989 are the tasteless TV images of flag-draped coffins returning from Operation Just Cause in Panama ...

"I wept while we watched U.S. network footage of the flag-draped coffins' solemn arrival on U.S. soil being deliberately replayed repeatedly, juxtaposed with totally unrelated less serious footage of then-President (George Herbert Walker) Bush, smiling, seemingly oblivious. All this was accompanied by an egotistical network anchorman's opinionated critical commentary on the shortcomings and supposed insensitivities of our commander-in-chief.

"While 'only' 23 U.S. servicemen and two American Department of Defense Dependents Schools school teachers died during the 'invasion' of Panama, that coverage of flag-draped coffins was blatantly used inappropriately for selfish political manipulation, causing my heart to ache even more for the families of the dead ... Has the U.S. media sufficiently matured and become more objective since that time? This realist doubts it."

n Don Wellman of Buxton: "I cannot figure out your fascination with displaying caskets. It is of no help to anyone to show off these poor soldiers."

n Harry Dwyer of Fayette: "Why is the no coverage policy in place to begin with? ... Better to keep it out of sight and out of mind. We do not honor our fallen servicemen and women sneaking their bodies home. Americans need all the information possible, however sad or uncomfortable it makes us, in order to make accurate judgments and hold our government accountable for policies conducted in our name."

n Charlie Remy of Gorham: "I think that the media should have access to the flag-draped coffins when they come back from Iraq or any other foreign place. Olympia Snowe is right on when she says that this country must have transparency and accountability."

n Michael Morrison of Fryeburg: "As a Vietnam veteran, I fully understand the Pentagon/Republican effort to keep the coffins out of sight. During the Vietnam war the press had full access to most areas of combat as well as Dover Air Base. My wife-to-be said she did not watch any news programs for the entire year I was in Vietnam. The daily body counts - both American and Viet Cong - and the hundreds of flag-draped coffins probably affected public opinion more than any other single factor.

"War is a nasty, hellish, nightmare. It affects every person who experiences it for the rest of their lives. When we commit this country to war every citizen needs to fully understand what that really means

"In my mind the only heroes of any war are those who never return home - or come home in a box. My dad fought in both World War I and II. The day he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery his coffin was draped in the flag he loved and served for. To not allow the public to view the return of our fallen heroes, draped in the anonymity of our country's flag, is a disgrace."

n N. Hill Ward of Windham: "I believe the Press Herald is exhibiting a high degree of sensitivity for the families and their great loss while at the same time remaining responsible in its print media role to its readers. It's a difficult balance to keep, but the Portland Press Herald is handling it admirably.

"I also strongly agree with Sens. McCain and Snowe. I am of the 'Vietnam War Generation' and remember the obscenely impersonal daily 'body count' columns in Newsday and how they became simply numbers, no names, no faces. McCain and Snowe are totally on target regarding the obligation we Americans have to be constantly cognizant of the cost of war.

"We should have an opportunity to say a simple but heartfelt prayer as we see the flag-draped caskets to honor the tremendous sacrifice our armed forces members have made. Collectively, we vote in the administration, we vote in our various congressional representatives who make the decision to go to war. We therefore bear a collective responsibility to share sorrow with and be supportive of other Americans who suffer the loss of family members in this war."

n Polly Fink of Rockport: "In this sanitized 'non-war' war we are engaged in, when we are not even advised to ration gasoline but rather to max-out our credit cards, we certainly should see those returning caskets. I think the families would welcome some attention to their terrible loss."

Jeannine Guttman is editor and vice president of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Send e-mail to: or write to 390 Congress St., Portland, Maine 04101.

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