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Return of the Dead: Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins Revive Controversy

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For the first time since the invasion of Iraq began, photos of returning flag-draped coffins have begun appearing in the press. The Pentagon enacted a ban on such a photos on the eve of the war. The Seattle Times first ran a photo Sunday taken by an employee of Maytag Aircraft, who was later fired. Newspapers across the country are now running photos of returning caskets taken by the military that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. [includes rush transcript]

Over 700 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the invasion of Iraq began 13 months ago. Over 700 slain American men and women returning home to the United States in coffins. But due to a ban enacted by the Pentagon on the eve of the war, not one photo of a flag-draped coffin has ever appeared in the press. Until now.

This past Sunday the Seattle Times ran a photo of caskets that were taken in Kuwait by an employee of the military contractor Maytag Aircraft. The worker who took the photo and her husband have since been fired after the Pentagon complained to Maytag.

Meanwhile, the website, thememoryhole.org filed a Freedom of Freedom of Information Act with the Air Force and received 350 photos of flag-draped caskets taken by the military. They were quickly circulated around the Internet. The photos are now appearing on the front cover of newspapers across the country today, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe. According to the New York Times, all of the major TV news channel ran photos as well, with one exception — Fox News. Meanwhile the Defense Department has ordered no more such photos be released.

  • Wilson “Woody” Powell, is the Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, which is based in St. Louis Missouri.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman broadcasting from St. Louis with Juan Gonzalez in New York.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And good day to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and to you, Amy, in St. Louis on this April 23, the 36th anniversary, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it, of the Columbia student strike of 1968 on April 23 of that year. Thousands of students started engaging in one of the biggest strikes against the Vietnam War and racism and I always like to mention it because I was a part of it and it was an important student strike that reverberated throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Juan, you were one of the leaders of the Columbia University Strike.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well there were two organizations, the Students for Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society that led the struggle and over about 17,000 students over a six-week period shut down the university and it resulted — it sparked protests that year in many colleges around the country. Of course, leading to the biggest student strike in American history, San Francisco State. And I understand a young man by the name of Danny Glover was are instrumental and active in the San Francisco State strike of that year.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now joined by Woody Powell. He is the executive director of Veterans For Peace, which is based right here in St. Louis. Welcome to Democracy Now!

WOODY POWELL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your reaction to the story of the photos now being released. Let’s begin with the story of the woman in Kuwait who took the photos. Tell us who she is and what she did.

WOODY POWELL: This woman, 50 years old, and working for Maytag, decided that the families of the slain should have some way of knowing just how tenderly and how respectfully the bodies of their children were being treated as they came back and so he took a photograph inside a military air transport of these flag-draped coffins, and if you’ve seen that photograph, they are lined up very, very neatly. The flags are very, very carefully placed over the coffins and it is — it is a very respectful presentation and it was her desire that the families see that and know that these — their sons and daughters had — who have made the ultimate sacrifice, were being treated with great care and reverence. And for that, she was fired. Now the first objective of Veterans for Peace is to inform people of the cost of war. Of course, the most apparent one is the immediate deaths of the combatants. Then there are all the other ancillary costs of war. And we do try to inform people of all the costs of war. Some of those that are visible and can be represented in photographs like that, but also those that are not so visible. And there are a lot of soldiers that are coming home that are not in those coffins, but are carrying some very, very deep wounds that also need to be seen. And Veterans for Peace is very, very grateful to this woman for sort of cracking the lid on this whole business of the true cost of war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Woody Powell, I’d like to ask you, talking about the images. Of course, more than a generation ago, during the Vietnam War, there was the images of those caskets being — arriving at Dover air force base, being taken actually off the planes. The images of Vietnamese being napalmed that had an enormous impact on the American people’s view of that war.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Your sense in terms of the degree to which right now the media images of Iraq are being —- are being controlled by the -—

WOODY POWELL: Sanitized?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sanitized if you would, yes.

WOODY POWELL: Yeah. I think they are sanitized. You know, it’s pretty obvious to me. I watch alternative news programs on my DirecTV from broadcast from Canada and from all around the world and they show an entirely different set of images than the ones that are obtainable through the major media outlets here in town.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the argument, Woody, that it is not respectful to the families. This is the argument —

WOODY POWELL: War isn’t respectful to families for goodness sakes. No. I think that is a bogus argument. I have talked with the families of — of people who have died and who are wounded. I’ve talked with the — with veterans coming back from Iraq and they want people to know what has happened and what is happening to them now and the images that they’re carrying around in their heads and they are outspoken about it. We’re getting people joining Veterans for Peace right now that are looking for audiences to tell their story to. It’s part of their — it’s part of their healing. It’s part of — it’s really a necessary part of their, you know, coming back into civil society to be able to inform the people that send them over there of what happened and what’s happening inside them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think should happen to Tami Silicio and David Landry, her husband, the ones who have been fired by Maytag —

WOODY POWELL: Well if they want their jobs back, I think they should have them back. If they don’t want their jobs back, I think that they should be recognized for what they did. And I think the compassion that drove that needs to be recognized.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Woody Powell, executive director of Veterans for Peace. In a minute, we’ll be joined by Tariq Ali, talking about what’s happening in Iraq and then Bob McChesney as a conference is underway here in St. Louis that I’ll also be attending, that is sponsored by an organization called the Union for Democratic Communications as we continue our 70-city tour, the Exception to the Rulers Tour, supporting independent media like here in St. Louis, KDHX, as well as DHTV, independent TV and radio around the country in a time of the greatest media consolidation in this country. In a minute, we’re going to Tariq Ali. Right now, we’re going to break and I want to thank Woody Powell, the executive director of Veterans for Peace for joining us. Thank you very much, a veteran of the Korean War.

WOODY POWELL: Thank you very much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!. We’ll be back in a minute.

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