Flag-Draped Memories

The strange history of war-death imagery


Three months after the war began, a New York newspaper bitterly attacked the administration's handling of unpleasant military news. "Their 'information' is treacle for children," thundered the angry editorialist, who compared the military's growing edifice of information control to the work of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Other publications agreed that war news was being "dry-cleaned" by the Pentagon, which had yet to release a single image of an American military death. Indeed, there were rumors that a paranoid White House was planting informants in newsrooms, and even tapping reporters' phones. It was 1942.

You'll find that portrait of an earlier generation of wartime Americans, their press, and their government in George Roeder's invaluable study, The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (1993). One lesson to be taken is that Americans don't entirely trust their state, even when it is engaged in an effort that most of them support. That is especially true when the state's effort is military, as the current controversy concerning images of Iraq's flag-draped coffins—and thus the struggle over the control of war imagery—illustrates once again.

The struggle for war-image control began when a camera was first aimed at soldiers in Crimea, but that struggle is hardly founded on the absolutes implied by arguments like the one over the war coffins. The simple version of this and similar debates—that the state must hide its dead or risk growing opposition to its war—is a pointless simplification of a complex phenomenon. Yet both the state, which wants to limit these images' exposure, and war critics, who want them disseminated, are acting as if the reaction to such images is necessarily Pavlovian.

The historical role of such war imagery is actually filled with contradictions. The state doesn't always try to hide its war dead; sometimes it is anxious to display them. Viewers of such images are not always repelled or demoralized by them; they have had many other kinds of reactions, including an increased support for war. The press is not always anxious to reproduce such images for either sensational or political purposes; it may well prefer to ignore them entirely. The war images we see are not always documentary evidence of war's carnage; some famous images may well have been misidentified, and some photographers have even arranged and rearranged the dead like so many props. For that matter, images, however harrowing, are not even necessarily more revealing of war's atrocities than are words.

World War II, a singularly misperceived experience, offers telling illustrations of many of the complexities involving both the control of war images and the reaction to them. As author Roeder recounts, for the first two years of that war there was not a single documentary image of American death released to the public. This was a continuation of the policy adopted during World War I, when the American government censored all such images throughout the conflict.

The reason that Franklin Roosevelt followed Woodrow Wilson's censorship example, it appears, is that FDR was uncertain of continued public support, especially for the war in Europe. Until mid-1942, the war news was nearly all bad, and a significant number of Americans thought an overextended U.S. should have concentrated on Japan, which had attacked the country. Nearly a third of the populace favored making some accommodation with Nazi Germany and extricating the U.S. military from Europe. The administration feared that images of the war's dead would demoralize the country, and further erode support for the war's broad strategy. War photographers (who, like war reporters, were actually in uniform) often had to send their unexposed rolls of film to the Pentagon for processing.

By late 1943, however, FDR's administration and the military had completely changed their minds. Americans, they decided, had by then become too complacent about the war. Much of the war news had been positive, and the government was worried about increasing work absenteeism. What Americans needed, thought the state, was a display of military sacrifice; the Pentagon quickly released hundreds of images of dead soldiers to remind civilians that the war remained a deadly business still to be decided. As it happens, many publications refused to publish the images; their editors feared such pictures would "disturb" readers. However, some of the country's largest circulation periodicals, such as Life magazine, did run them, and they were widely seen.

There is, of course, an apparent contradiction between these two approaches. If FDR's original view was valid—that death images would demoralize the public—then displaying it in the latter part of the war (when the vast majority of U.S. war deaths occurred) risked undermining the American military's demands for unconditional surrender, at least in Europe. If his later, revised view was correct—that death imagery would increase public fervor—then displaying them in the first, dark months of the war might well have helped counteract the effect of so much negative military news. (As it happens, "Noble Sacrifice" against great odds was the underlying theme of many early Hollywood war movies.)

There is an obvious third proposition: Neither of these generalizations about the effect of death imagery was necessarily correct. While there is often a plain and unchanging personal meaning in such images of death, there is no inevitable political meaning in them; rather, their political meaning and impact can change according their context. The most important factor in that context is probably not whether a given conflict appears to be going well, but whether the viewer of such images believes the war's cause to be just, and its pursuit purposeful. If you believe that about the Iraq war, then you probably interpret the coffin images a certain way; if you don't, you probably see a different picture.

Hiding such imagery, as many administrations have done, is in the end an act of self-defeating censorship, one that raises questions about the state's view of the citizens it is sending to war, and potentially about the state's view of the war itself. However, disseminating such images as an act of war criticism is reductionist and prone to backfire, because such an act seeks to impose a single political meaning on images whose meaning is changing and fluid. Whether such images portray honorable sacrifice or something very different depends on how the viewers of the images perceive the war itself, and not, as some involved in this debate seem to believe, the other way around.