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Sunday, March 21, 2004

PUBLIC RELATIONS KEEPS U.S. FLAG FROM FLYING IN IRAQ


Public relations keeps U.S. flag from flying in Iraq
(Sun, Mar/21/2004)

Gerry White was hopping mad when he called last week. The Warminster resident was upset to learn that U.S. troops serving in Iraq are not permitted to display the American flag.

He considers the practice a "slap in the face" to all Americans.

Like it or not, the no-flag policy has been in effect since the war began a year ago. At the war's outset, coalition headquarters in Kuwait ordered soldiers, airmen and Marines not to display the American flag on vehicles or buildings. It was reported that the order was only loosely followed.

Then in April, the world saw the dramatic images of jubilant Iraqis in Baghdad tearing down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein. The crowd was having trouble toppling the statue of the former dictator, so some U.S. Marines in an armored tank recovery vehicle helped out.

The Marines tied the statue to their heavy vehicle, but before they tore it down, Marine Cpl. Edward Chin of New York draped the Stars and Stripes over the statue's face. Within a minute, the flag was replaced with an Iraqi flag.

The scene, broadcast all around the world, proved to be something of an embarrassment to U.S. military leaders and policy makers. It's important, they said, that Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world see U.S. forces in Iraq as "liberators" and not "conquerors."

So, another, more forceful, order on showing the flag was issued to U.S. troops, and since then the only place the American flag is displayed in Iraq is at the U.S. Embassy.

Never underestimate the role of public relations in the conduct of modern warfare.

Along those lines, here's another issue connected to the war and how it's portrayed to the public.
Not long ago, I received a correspondence from a reader who complained about the news media's conspicuous lack of coverage of the solemn ceremonies that take place when the bodies of the nation's war dead are returned to the United States.

He suggested this was more evidence of the "liberal media's" distortion of the "real story" of Operation Iraqi Freedom and an insult to the sacrifices of the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

In reality, the reason you've seen no images of flag-draped coffins accompanied by uniformed honor guards and prayed over by military chaplains is because the news media isn't permitted to cover the ceremonies.

The large military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to which most of the war dead are flown, has been off-limits to the press when bodies are returned since 1991. Last March the Pentagon extended the ban to all military installations around the world.

The ceremonies are conducted in private, the Pentagon says, out of sensitivity to the grief of the deceased's loved ones.

Others, however, have noted that keeping images of flag-draped coffins out of the public's eye during wartime can have certain advantages for any government engaged in a conflict. Numbers are merely numbers, but such images of death and its finality tend to remind people of the real human cost of war and could turn their feelings against it.

During the Vietnam War, images of America's dead returning to Dover and elsewhere were regular fare on the TV nightly news. It gave rise to the term "Dover test," an informal gauge of the public's tolerance of the mounting body count. Eventually, after 10 years and 58,000 dead, the Vietnam War failed to pass the "Dover test."

But for Iraq, there's no such thing as a "Dover test." For whatever reason you choose to believe, it's absent from our view. Just don't blame the press for that absence.

Lou Sessinger's column is published Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's also on the Internet at www.phillyburbs.com. He can be contacted at the Montgomery County office of The Intelligencer, 145 Easton Road, Horsham, PA 19044; phone (215) 957-8172; fax (215) 957-8165; e-mail, lsessinger@phillyburbs.com.

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