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Editorial: Photos and Coffins

Honor the fallen

The Obama administration should reverse a policy that forbids the media from photographing the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The ban was put in place in 1991, during the first Gulf War, under President George H.W. Bush. Prior to that, photographers were allowed to take pictures of the caskets as they returned on transport planes to the nation's largest military mortuary.

President George W. Bush renewed the ban during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying he wanted to be sensitive to military families.

Bush said photographing the caskets might put undue pressure on family members of the fallen to attend the event at Dover, even though they might not be able to afford the cost of traveling there. Critics accused Bush of trying to sanitize and censor the war.

Vice President Biden, while serving as a senator from Delaware in 2004, complained that fallen soldiers were being "snuck back into the country under the cover of night."

With the election of President Obama, some officials, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), have called for lifting the ban. Obama said he is waiting for a Pentagon review of the ban, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that he is open to changing the policy.

Gates should lift the ban, while trying to be as sensitive as possible to the wishes of families. It's not an easy call, and not all military families feel the same way about the issue.

Some relatives believe it's an invasion of privacy, or an exploitation of their loss to foment antiwar sentiment. Other families feel that allowing photographs is a way to honor the military dead, and that banning photographs amounts to the government hiding their loss.

Still others believe that the soldiers' sacrifices, and the war itself, tend to be forgotten by the public unless photographs are permitted.

That's why Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.), who voted in favor of using military force in Iraq, also favors allowing the media to photograph the returning caskets.

If a family objects, arrangements should be made to accommodate its wishes. But photographs should be allowed in other cases, because the public should be able to see the cost of war. Without the visible proof, casualty reports don't reflect the true sacrifice.