Censorship Dishonors the Dead -- and the Truth

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

One day after the United States started bombing Iraq -- the first time, in 1991 -- Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf strode to a podium in Saudi Arabia and declared: “We’re never going to get into the body count business.” His intention, based on deeply felt belief, was to honor the American soldier and expunge the corruptions of Vietnam, where inflated enemy body counts had been used to sustain support for a conflict that proved impossible to win. But Schwarzkopf’s personal principle has evolved over time to become a sweeping policy used by politicians to muzzle any talk of casualties in war--including American casualties.

Now with “Coffingate,” the controversy over the Pentagon’s censoring photographs of coffins of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Schwarzkopf’s principle has been extended even further. The Bush administration argues that its policy is one of respect for the fallen soldiers and their families. Sen. John F. Kerry argues that it’s a matter of the American people’s right to know.

Caught in the middle are those who have loved ones serving in Iraq. They find themselves face to face with old wounds, having to defend their sons and daughters, as parents did during Vietnam, in a world of highly polarized views. Their loyalty to their loved ones forces them into unquestioning support for U.S. policy, despite a string of government missteps and broken promises to the troops.

Though it is difficult to measure morale for the 135,000 troops in Iraq, one thing is clear: For a lot of common soldiers, censoring pictures of coffins, whatever boost that gives to morale back home, denies soldiers who gave their lives an honor they deserve.

“If a soldier is to make the ultimate sacrifice,” one young soldier wrote from Iraq, “the least we can do, as individuals and as a nation, is to honor that sacrifice and say loudly to the rest of the world that this soldier, this Pfc. or this sergeant died for his country, and I will not let his death go untrumpeted. I will not hide his body away like something shameful.”


On Jan. 18, 1991, when Army Gen. Schwarzkopf explained his so-called body count policy, he dismissed initial press reports about numbers of Iraqis killed in the Allied bombings as “nothing more than rough, wild estimates.”

“Body count means nothing, absolutely nothing,” Schwarzkopf repeated two weeks later. “All it is, is a wild guess that tends to mislead people as to what’s going on.... I personally don’t like the idea of issuing body counts on a comparative basis. I think it puts undue pressure on commanders to come up with numbers that are unreal.”

Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, who led the air campaign in 1991, explained Schwarzkopf’s feeling this way: “If you had Success A today, then you have to have Success B bigger the next day, or people become disenchanted.

“I don’t think there was a day during [the Gulf War] that we didn’t touch back and sort of touch those sore points from Vietnam,” Horner said in his official oral history. “One of the first casualties in Vietnam was integrity.... “

Schwarzkopf later told Life magazine, “There was a loss of confidence on the part of the American people in their military leadership” as a result of the Vietnam War.

How did Schwarzkopf’s adamant refusal to count enemy dead turn into today’s fetish about controlling photographs of U.S. coffins returning from Iraq -- photos that demonstrate the dignity and respect with which the remains are treated?

My guess is that in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, precision bombing and overwhelming military superiority had the potential to kill so many Iraqis that the numbers could have become politically and morally embarrassing. If military leaders had claimed that a small number of Iraqis died in a particular engagement, it might have been interpreted by some as covering up. Conversely, low numbers might have encouraged some to expect ever less bloody battles in the future.

Even a decade ago, it was widely believed that sensitivity to casualties was the United States’ greatest weakness on the battlefield. So the body count mentality was recast. Any rending of clothes about American deaths in battle might be interpreted as insensitivity to the deaths of others. A comparatively small number of American casualties might connote an “unfair” fight waged by a remote and immune superpower. A large number might provide unwelcome succor for America’s enemies.

Now we are back in Iraq, with all of the complications and emotions associated with what has become America’s most deadly military conflict since the Vietnam War.

In much of the Arab and Islamic world, where gross images of Iraqi civilian casualties flourish and stories of excessive use of force by the U.S. military proliferate, Americans are seen as indifferent to Iraqi deaths. Meantime, other foreign news is filled with assertions that the administration wants to keep images of coffins out of the media to sanitize the war and manipulate American support for the occupation; in short, the administration is portrayed as duplicitous on the principles of free speech.

As a result of all this, the feelings of military families are in danger of being manipulated and the reputation of the American military is in danger of being tarnished once more.

Families and others may still believe in Operation Iraqi Freedom, be proud of military service and see the wisdom of a longer stay in Iraq. But they must resist being hijacked by Vietnam analogies, pro or con. Iraq may be a quagmire, but no one in the United States associates this war with the warrior. It is an article of faith in America today, across the political spectrum, that the all-volunteer military deserves our support, regardless of what one thinks of the war.

Meanwhile, the administration should truly honor those families and those who serve by lifting the prohibition on taking and releasing photographs of coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The caskets serve as a poignant reminder of the premature loss of life. They counteract the tendency of some Americans not to pay much attention to the military. And they are a useful dose of reality for policymakers all too ready to rely on our super-competent military for everything.

To Kerry, I say: Drop the Vietnam fixation. There are plenty of good reasons for the U.S. to leave Iraq. There is much national soul-searching still needed about our erroneous justification for war and the strategy we pursue that brings us to where we are today. But I don’t hear you arguing for withdrawal or for a radically different approach than Bush’s.

As for the U.S. military, the body count business does come back to them. We need more integrity and candor from American military leaders, active and retired. Otherwise they are in danger of repeating their mistakes in Vietnam. We need to know what they really think: Are American troops just following orders and doing their duty, or is there -- behind the fog of battle and the smoke of politics -- a sensible military strategy and a real prospect of “winning” in Iraq?