Death never makes a pretty picture, but funerals are about honor and grief and healing. That the Bush administration still struggles to hide these images five years into the Iraq war speaks to a paranoia that is as politically deceitful as it is self-defeating.
The latest casualty of this crusade is Arlington National Cemetery public affairs officer Gina Gray, a woman who still suffers hearing loss from an enemy ambush in Iraq in 2003. Gray got crossways with her bosses after she tried to restore media coverage for military funerals. Two months after the Washington Post reported on her efforts, Gray was fired.
Lest you think Gray wanted to let grieving families be ambushed by the media, coverage is allowed only with the explicit permission of the next of kin. But what Gray found was that her superiors were calling families who had agreed to media coverage and trying to talk them out of it. Then, cemetery deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham decided to rope off photographers and reporters more than 50 yards away — far enough so they couldn't hear and could barely photograph.
This has been a pattern, of course, under a Bush White House obsessed with managing the images of war. The president decided early on to keep his distance from funerals, and the Pentagon banned photographs of the flag-draped coffins arriving in Dover, Del. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates has promised, and sometimes delivered, a more transparent view of war than his predecessor. Why has he not stepped in to right this wrong?
The absurdity of this kind of censorship is that it ends up, in many cases, leaving communities more detached from the fallen soldiers and the grieving families in their midst. Media coverage allows a broader audience to learn about and then to honor these patriots. If the families welcome it, military bureaucrats ought to honor their wishes.