For hundreds of U.S. soldiers from the war in Iraq, their final journey home has not been witnessed by fellow Americans for whom they fought. A ban on photographs of coffins was reinforced by the Bush administration as it prepared for war in Iraq. According to The Washington Post, in March 2003 the Pentagon sent a directive to U.S. military bases that read: “There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] Air Base or Dover [Del.] Air Force Base, to include interim stops.”
This directive reinforced a U.S. military policy, dating from the last few months of the Clinton administration, that had gone unheeded during the Afghanistan conflict, when photos of coffins coming home were taken at bases such as Ramstein, before the planes landed at Dover. Restrictions on press coverage were put into place at Dover in 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War, though on some occasions this last leg of the journey home has been shown.
In April, photographs of flag-draped coffins surfaced from two sources—Tami Silicio, a civilian airport worker in Kuwait, and thememoryhole.org, a Web site that is devoted to combating government secrecy. First, The Seattle Times published on its front page Silicio’s photograph of long rows of coffins in the cargo hold of a military plane bound for Germany. Publication of Silicio’s photograph resulted in her and her husband, both contract workers for the military, being fired by the U.S. company for whom they worked in Kuwait. A few days later, 361 Air Force photos of repatriation ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base appeared in many publications after Russ Kick shared images he received and posted on his Web site (thememoryhole.org) as a result of submitting a Freedom of Information Act request (and an appeal) to officials at Dover. Following Kick’s posting of the photos, the defense department ordered that no more such images be released.
Publication of these images—along with the employee firing and reaffirmed Pentagon ban on the release of photos that followed—led to much discussion among Webloggers, journalists, commentators, family members of the war dead, military and First Amendment advocates. They shared opinions about the possible political reasons for the government’s enforcement of this policy and its legality, which was upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals in a 1996 civil liberties case.