Commentary - May 1, 2004
Who’s Protected in Holding Back Painful Photos?
By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
Seeing the government photographs released last week of U.S. soldiers' coffins brought back painful recent memories when I requested 45-year-old archived newspaper photos of the plane crash in which my mother and grandmother died. I especially found myself agonizing over one particular photo - rows of sheet-draped bodies laid out around the crumpled DC-3. I found myself wondering: '”Could that be the body of my mother? Is the one over there my grandmother?”
It can be incredibly painful for relatives or friends of the soldiers killed in Iraq to relive the anguish of these all-too-early deaths. We may tell ourselves we've made peace with the loss, but it can be shattered in an instant by seeing faceless images in photos or film footage. Images such as the one in front of that DC-3, or of remains pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center, or the recent photos of those rows of flag-draped coffins in Dover Air Force Base. "Is that one my son? Or daughter? Or friend? Or parent?"
I had been haunted for years by unanswered questions about that 1954 plane crash. I suppose my relatives felt they were "protecting" my younger brother and me by hiding the newspaper articles and photos. Maybe they thought we couldn't handle it because we were just kids. Who was it really protecting? Us or them? It seems to me it only served to prolong our anguish.
It took more than four decades for me to gather the courage to try to make sense of it all. I knew I had to find a way to make my mother and grandmother's deaths "real" and finally pave the way for the grieving that had never occurred. I contacted the National Transportation Safety Board for the crash report and the Omaha World-Herald for the news stories and photos. When I noticed that a photo seemed to be missing and asked the newspaper librarian about it, there was a very long silence before she answered that she'd held it back for fear of upsetting me - protecting me much as my family had tried to do so long ago.
"Oh, send it along," I said, thinking nothing could be any more upsetting than the photos of the smashed plane she had already sent me. I wasn't prepared for how stunned I was when the photograph of the sheet-draped bodies arrived in the mail. I could see why she had wanted to protect me, but did she have a right to shield the truth from me?
And now I find myself asking, "Why all the secrecy about the coffins from Iraq? Exactly who is our government protecting?" I'd like to believe it's the relatives and friends of the men and women in those coffins. But somehow, I don't think so. The ban on photographing the return of U.S. war dead has been in place since 1991 and the first Bush administration.
I'm going through a mighty conflict. Exactly what is in the best interest of the public? Surely, we have a right to be made aware of what is happening in Iraq, to know the whole truth about the casualties of war, to have the opportunity to make the deaths and the losses real. But then again, what about respect for the feelings of loved ones who are also viewing those photos?
There are no easy answers here. But we can ask ourselves how far we are willing to go in the name of "protection," and for the protection of who?
Elayne Savage is a Berkeley psychotherapist, consultant and author.
© Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
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