Facing the realities of war

The United States had been involved in World War II for about 18 months when Life magazine published an issue focusing on American casualties. In its edition of July 5, 1943, Life reported that 12,987 Americans had been killed since the United States entered the war in December 1941.

The magazine’s cover showed Army Air Corps soldiers carrying the flag-draped coffin of a fallen comrade to a grave in Tunisia. The photo was seen by millions of Life readers. Life also devoted 23 pages of that issue to listing the name of every armed forces member who’d been killed in combat.

“As a nation, the U.S. is not accustomed to big war casualties,” an accompanying story said. “Not since the Civil War has its manpower been seriously weakened by battle losses.”

Yet Life’s editors thought that Americans were strong enough to see a photo of a dead soldier’s coffin and 23 pages of names and hometowns of those killed in action. And the magazine’s editors also noted that combat deaths were going to rapidly increase. “During most of that time, it has been on the defensive, fighting only when necessary, building up its strength,” the editors wrote. “When the great, offensive battles come, its casualties will mount.”

They were right. When World War II ended in 1945, more than 416,000 American soldiers and sailors had been killed.

In other issues throughout the war, Life also published photos of American combat dead on the battlefield. And newspapers across the nation published a daily list of war deaths.

That’s a stark contrast to the policy put in place when United States troops invaded Iraq in 2003. Photos of flag-draped coffins of the Iraq war dead have been prohibited.

That’s a bad policy, one that is intended to sanitize the war and hide its grim realities from the American public. And instead of protecting the privacy of families who have lost someone in the war, it’s an insult to them. Their loss and sacrifice goes unnoticed.

But that may be about to change.

The New York Times reported yesterday that 69 percent of respondents to a recent poll want the photo ban lifted. And in his speech to a joint session of Congress last night, President Obama noted that the United States has been at war for seven years. “No longer will we hide its price,” he said.

Maybe that statement is an advance notice that the ban will be lifted. It’s time to face the realities of war. We were strong enough to face it during World War II, and we need to know that we’re still strong enough for it.

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