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War Photographs, Then and Now


Published August 25, 2008 at 2:11 p.m.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Danville, a beautiful town located on Route 2 between Montpelier and St. Johnsbury, to report a story about Howard Coffin, an ex-Rutland Herald reporter (and former Senator Jim Jeffords press secretary) who is traveling to every town in the state in search of Vermont Civil War lore. So when I arrived in the office this morning, I was particularly interested in an email from the Vermont Historical Society announcing a new online collection of Civil War photographs. The photos, featuring 859 of the 1363 Vermonters who served as officers in the Civil War, once hung in the Vermont State House, according to VHS.

Since war appears to be something of a recurring phenomenon, images of one war inevitably recall images of another. In that gloomy spirit, I just browsed a few websites featuring photographs of the Iraq War. One page, on the official U.S. Army site, showcases the kinds of photos you see in . . . Army press materials. Another, on the website Afterdowningstreet.org, features gruesome photos of Iraqi victims that you would never see in mainstream newspapers.

Almost five years ago, the Bush administration prohibited the media from photographing flag-draped coffins — to the eventual dismay of Military Families Speak Out and other anti-war groups. But on July 30, House Rep Walter B. Jones (R-NC) introduced the "Fallen Hero Commemoration Act," a bill that would require the Department of Defense to allow "accredited members of the media" to attend memorial services for active-duty members of the Armed Forces. The bill appears to be a recapitulation of a January 2007 House resolution by Democrat Charles Rangel of New York.

"The legislation is significant," Daryl Lang wrote recently on the photography site Photo District News, "because it would, for the first time since Vietnam, let photojournalists capture the powerful images of flag-draped caskets arriving on American soil during wartime." For more background on Bush administration-sanctioned censorship of Iraq war images, check out this blog post by Guardian writer Dan Kennedy. Or this one, by Huffington Post blogger Ruth Hochberger.

Does Democrat Peter Welch, Vermont's lone House Rep, support Jones' bill? I'm going to query his peeps after finishing this post — stay tuned.

(Photo from the VHS online gallery — Lt. Col. Stephen M. Pingree)