by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 29, 2004
LIFTING THE SHROUD OF SECRECY ON BUSH'S WAR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - President George W. Bush didn't have a problem with using a photograph of a flag-draped body bag being carried from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City for his first commercial of the campaign season.
Heroic sacrifice is fine if it helps the president's campaign, but pictures of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan must not be seen. Likewise for the thousands of wounded soldiers who are flown back to the U.S. under cover of darkness. No one must see the human cost that's being paid for the folly of the Bush administration.
It took an airport cargo worker in Kuwait to finally lift the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded the dead and wounded from President Bush's war. Virtually every other secret from the Iraq war had been revealed, except for the images that the Bush administration has tried so hard to keep from our eyes.
You could see why. The dead and wounded work better as abstractions for the president to invoke in speeches rather than as reminders that wars have real costs - costs that none of the scheming men who gave us this war seem to understand.
I'm old enough to remember the weekly "body counts" from the Vietnam War being solemnly read on the evening news. I remember vividly the issue of Life magazine from June 27, 1969 that had the faces of every American - 242 of them - that died the previous week in Vietnam, page after page of young men. These, and other news stories and photos from that era, shaped the way I think about war, truth and questioning authority.
It seems as if the people running the "war on terror" in the Bush administration - men who, with the notable exception of Secretary of State Colin Powell, managed to avoid going to fight in Vietnam - also remember those words and images. These are the men who blame the press, and not the failed Cold War policies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, for our defeat in Vietnam.
There would be no repeat in Iraq, they decided. The bodies of our fallen young men and women would be kept from public view.
The small-town papers put those coffins on their front pages as the war came home, one corpse at a time, to every corner of America. But the sense of loss didn't really strike home until Tami Silicio snapped a photo of the interior of an Air Force cargo jet that contained the flag-draped coffins of more than 20 dead soldiers.
On that night, April 7, the coffins were neatly lined up inside the jet in rows of three. A half-dozen airmen walked among them and carefully tied them down. These coffins, holding the remains of the first casualties in what has become the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in Iraq, were on their way home.
Silicio was deeply affected by the solemnity and profound care with which these men were shipped home - the white gloves worn by the ground crews, the prayers said over the coffins as they were loaded. It was a scene she had seen many times since she started working at Kuwait International Airport for Maytag Aircraft, a military contractor, in 2002.
Silicio said that she wanted people to know "that their children weren't being thrown around like a piece of cargo." She knew she and her husband, who also worked for Maytag Aircraft, would probably lose their jobs if the photo was printed. But she felt that it was important for people see it.
"The picture is about them, not me, about how they served their country, paid the price for our freedom, and the respect they receive on their way home from our military personnel at our air terminal," wrote Silicio to her hometown newspaper, The Seattle Times, which eventually published her photo on the front page of the April 18 edition.
Silicio and her husband were fired two days later.
The Times was flooded with letters. Editorial Page Editor James Vesely said e-mails were coming in at the rate of one a second in the days after the photo appeared. Nearly all the letters and e-mails were in favor.
A couple of days later, Russ Kick, an Arizona-based First Amendment advocate, managed to get the Air Force to honor a Freedom of Information request and release 361 photos of caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, site of the military's main mortuary. You can see these pictures at Kick's incomparable Web site, The Memory Hole (http://thememoryhole.org).
Together, Silicio and Kick have helped to remind us of the Bush administration's sorry record regarding its truthfulness on Iraq. They lied about the reasons for invading Iraq, lied about the human and economic costs of invading Iraq, lied about what would happen in postwar Iraq. Given all this, it's to be expected that they don't want us to see the one image that reinforces the harshest reality of war.
But now America has seen it. And we know that whether or not there is a camera to record it, the flow of dead from this illegal and immoral war isn't going to be ending soon.
And the ultimate question remains unanswered: why must our young people keep dying for a lie?
We're still waiting for a straight answer, Mr. President.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.