Consequences of War: What You Won't See on TV
The most famous American soldier of the Iraqi war is the one who says she didn't fire a shot — her gun jammed — and who feels, yeah, "used" as a symbol of military triumph when it's her comrades and rescuers who deserve the credit.
You can see Jessica Lynch on television this evening, as you have on many evenings since she returned home on July 22 to a clamorous welcome and five miles of yellow ribbons fluttering along the roads of West Virginia.
What you will not be able to see on TV — this evening, Veterans Day, or probably any other day — are some of the other soldiers who have also returned home from Iraq.
They have come back encased in aluminum and covered in the American flag — in coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Maryland, 383 of them since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March.
The nation's scrapbooks have accustomed us to the pictures of TV-era presidents, heads bowed, at the coffins of the American dead of the Marine barracks in Beirut, of Lebanon and Panama, of Kosovo, of the Nairobi embassy, even of Afghanistan.
But not now. Now the dead of Iraq arrive unobserved by cameras or reporters, because in March, as the Iraq war was about to begin, a Pentagon order forbade news media from showing the nation images of coffins arriving or departing at any bases, here or abroad.
The no-cameras rule at Dover came down in 1991, after groups including the ACLU lost a lawsuit against the Pentagon over access to Dover, which also serves as the nation's mortuary. The remains of the Challenger astronauts, among thousands more, were handled there.
What probably gave the Pentagon the idea in the first place was an incident in 1989 that broke down the White House image-making machinery.
The first President George Bush was infuriated that split-screen TV images had showed him being loosey-goosey and affable at a news conference four days before Christmas in 1989, while the other side of the screen carried live pictures of the first flag-covered coffins from Panama being hefted off a military jet and onto the shoulders of pallbearers at Dover.
Still, ceremonials for bodies arriving from Kosovo and more recently from Afghanistan were photographed and broadcast. But now the lockdown — and the press lockout — is complete.
And what of those who come back on stretchers and in wheelchairs, to Andrews Air Force Base, not in aluminum cases to Dover? "The wounded," Vermont's Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told his Senate colleagues last month, "are brought back after midnight, making sure the press does not see the planes coming in with the wounded."
The blackout policy is supposed to keep from violating privacy. But what it's really about is a little thing called "the Dover test." John Glenn, the astronaut who became a senator, used it in 1994 to talk about the images of dead soldiers being flown back to Dover from combat in Haiti. The Dover test proposes that the more coffins arrive from overseas, the more Americans' appetite for war — any war — is dulled.
And the moral here would be … don't go to war? No — just don't show the consequences of it. Control the image and you control the message. Iraq is about toppling Saddam statues, a president landing a jet on an aircraft carrier, a waifish soldier hustled to safety, illuminated by night-goggle-green light. It is not about armless or legless young men or women. It is not about coffins.
The invisible dead and the wounded are the nation's new MIAs — and so is the president who is nowhere to be seen, or photographed, among them.