Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Message of the Flag

Never has there been a better example of the medium becoming the message then the debate recently over the ban lifted by Secretary of Defense Gates originally prohibiting news organizations from photographing the flag draped coffins of our fallen heroes coming home from war aboard the cargo aircraft at Dover AFB, Delaware. Can there be anything more personal and private to a grieving family? Can there be anything more sensational than wrapping anything in the American flag? If the cargo bays of those C-141 aircraft were filled with plain pine boxes would there still be the same sensational photo opportunity? Draping those coffins is about paying the ultimate respect from a grateful nation for our warriors who have selflessly paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Those remains are sacred. Regardless what one might think politically of the war, any war, or the how and why of the existence of those remains, to exploit them in any way, is to disrespect the life, not the government that was ultimately responsible for the death. How many pictures of these coffin's, draped with flags, in the cargo bay of a C-141 do we need in our newspapers and magazines? We've all seen the pictures, there is nothing unique about them. Each picture is exactly the same visually -- it's only when you tie the exact picture to the remains of a certain friend or loved one that you invoke their precise memory. That is a personal and private sentiment known only to those close to the loved one lost. The physical content of the photo, in that case, is of sacred importance. To those who do not have a personal connection with the photo, the content is of little importance.

What becomes important is everything else. The powerful imagery of the aircraft, the soldiers in escort, the clean stark nature of the cargo bay, the all too important number of boxes, and of course the most powerful imagery of all, the clean and bright stars and stripes pulled neat and tight around each container. If you desire this picture there is a generic one available to you. If you are a family member you can get the exact one that is meaningful to you. However, the last time I checked, funeral photographer was not high up on the list of all time best career choices. So what is the drive behind these photographs? In our society, if you follow the money, most of the time you can find the motivation. Clearly these are not photo's that the families of the fallen would pay for in sufficiently profitable ways for a casket photographer to make money. Again, how many pictures of the same scene will continue to make the front page of Time or the USA Today? Who will continue to pay for these photo's?

Only those with an interest in exploiting these pictures for some other purpose could possibly behind Secretary Gates lifting the ban. I applaud him for lifting the ban in the interest of an open Country not wanting appear as if they are trying to hide the cost of war. Also, by allowing the privacy of the pictures to be determined by the family is the right measure. If the family member has a political ax to grind, and wants to believe that a picture of their loved one's flag draped casket is an important message about the war that must be conveyed, they can release the picture into the public domain. Once it's out, how then it is used, and how the message to be conveyed, is no longer in their hands. Is it a message of thanks from a grateful nation for a national hero who paid the ultimate sacrifice, or is it message of hatred for a country who is responsible for their death in an unjust and an unwanted war? A framed picture hanging on the mantle at home, or a picture on the front page of the Washington Post. The medium is clearly the message.

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