From a row of silhouetted hearses on a rain-drenched tarmac to a convoy of olive-green trucks, each of them bearing a coffin, more than 700 images of flag-draped coffins of American service members killed at war were released by the Pentagon this week in response to a lawsuit.
The photographs, taken by military photographers between 2001 and 2004, include one of a coffin containing the body of an American sailor sliding over the edge of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise during a Burial at Sea ceremony. Others show rows of coffins, and many depict solemn honor guard ceremonies for the fallen troops at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and other U.S. military facilities.
"This is an important victory for the American people, for the families of troops killed in the line of duty during wartime, and for the honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country," said University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter, whose October 2004 lawsuit spurred the release. He had sought the release under the Freedom of Information Act.
"This significant decision by the Pentagon should make it difficult, if not impossible, for any U.S. government in the future to hide the human cost of war from the American people," Begleiter said in a written statement.
The Pentagon, however, said the release of the photographs, which it termed "historical documentation," does not signify any lifting of the ban on media coverage of returning casualties. That ban, first imposed in January 1991 during the Gulf War and continued by President Bush with the start of the Afghanistan war in October 2001, is intended to "ensure privacy and respect is given to the families who have lost their loved ones," said Col. Gary Keck, a Defense Department spokesman. However, both Republican and Democratic administrations have made several exceptions to the ban over the last decade.
"The historical documentation done by military photographers is designed for a completely different reason than a photograph taken by the media very soon after the announcement of the death of an individual," said a defense official, adding that such "historical" photographs were still being taken and would be released "when appropriate."
Many of the photographs released were censored, with black rectangles blocking out faces, uniform insignia, name tags and other images that could reveal the identities of military personnel involved in the honor ceremonies.
"Individual judgments were made to black out some faces and identifying information to protect privacy information," said James Turner, a Defense Department spokesman, offering no further explanation.
Earlier publications of both private and military photographs of flag-draped coffins have spurred intense debate within the U.S. military, with some arguing the images honor military sacrifice and others contending they were used to make an anti-war statement.