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Better policy on military coffins

I have been writing a commentary column for The News for some 40 years now, but I approach this one with the full awareness that the topic is a highly emotional one and that my position will please some readers but undoubtedly upset a great many others. Knowing this, why have I decided to write this column?

The answer is that the issue involved has now been opened up again by the Obama administration, and rightly so. Back in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon banned news coverage of coffins arriving in the United States carrying the bodies of American service personnel who lost their lives in service of their country.

Now, however, the Pentagon has reconsidered this ban and in doing so studied the media policies of other nations. Two of our most important allies, Britain and Canada, allow far more media access to the return of a fallen serviceman or woman than does the United States.

President Obama on Feb. 9 ordered a review of the U.S. policy, reviving an old debate with supporters of the ban who say it say it protects the deaths from becoming politicized and critics who feel the government wants to reduce public awareness of the human cost of war. The ban was reversed Thursday, without details.

The issue is controversial and an emotional one. A 2003 poll by the New York Times and CBS News showed that 62 percent of respondents said the public should be allowed to see photographs of the military honor guard receiving the coffins, and 27 percent opposed that idea. Opposition to lifting the ban has come from an organization that represents 60,000 members of the military. Its poll of membership revealed that 64 percent said the existing policy should not be changed, with 12 percent saying the policy should be altered to allow cameras.

Policies of Britain and Canada suggest that repatriation is more of a national event in those countries. In Canada families decide whether the news media can cover the arrival of the coffins, and in Britain the Defense Ministry takes pictures of the arrival of the coffins and releases them to the media. Reporters are admitted but kept some distance from the grieving families. In both of these nations, a cortege leaves the arrival base and heads for the mortuary with TV usually following the procession live.

It is interesting to note that in April, 2006, the Canadian government imposed a news blackout of the arriving coffins, saying they wanted to protect the privacy of the grieving families. Only a month later the government reversed its course and allowed families to decide for themselves if they wanted viewing of the arrival of the coffins or if they wanted it to be done in private. If all of the immediate next of kin agree in the decision of whether to allow public access, it is permitted; if the unanimous decision is not reached, access is denied.

My feeling is that the Canadian plan is worthy of adoption by the United States with some modification. The unanimous decision of all surviving kin can, in some circumstances, be difficult to achieve and is not necessarily a key to agreement. I would suggest that the decision of the surviving spouse or designated key family member would be all that is needed to make the decision on public viewing. The unanimous decision of all survivors would be hard to achieve in many instances, particularly today when so many families are split for a great variety of reasons.

The former U.S. policy made no good sense and deprived many of the needed opportunity to pay their final respects to the fallen serviceman or woman.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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