As you may or may not remember, then-President George H.W. Bush banned images of American coffins (and dead) in 1991, against protests that the ban was an attempt to cover up the real cost of the first Gulf War in American lives. Then, in 2005, Professor of Communication Ralph Begleiter (University of Delaware) sued the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act to allow the images taken of American casualties returning to Dover Air Force base, and he won, claiming that "these images were the single most important way that the American people could see the cost of war." After American casualties began accumulating again in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, President George W. Bush renewed the ban on images of war dead-- and that ban remained in effect until yesterday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally lifted the media ban on images of American caskets.
It's hard to celebrate this development without some disturbance of conscience. On the one hand, it seems like an unambiguously good development inasmuch as lifting the ban signals a commitment to more transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama administration. Like Professor Begleiter said, images of war casualties are an important way to impress upon a citizenry the "cost of war," and one could easily argue that the anti-war effort was seriously handicapped over the past seven years by the suppression of these images. (Remember Marshall McLuhan's famous quote about the Vietnam War: "Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not on the battlefields of Vietnam.") On the other hand, the images are still of lost lives, the product of (what George McGovern called) "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," and whatever greater social good the images may serve does not assuage the tragedy of what they portray.
Even still, I am in favor of Gates' decision to lift the ban. For me, the wisdom of that decision is not (primarily) about providing ammunition for anti-war arguments, nor is it (strictly speaking) about a kind of tough-love utilitarian lesson in the "costs of war" for the American citizenry. Rather, it's about creating a proper, public space for mourning in this country again-- something that we have been denied for too long, much to our own detriment, and which has become both a symptom and a cause of our increasingly antidemocratic civic posture. Mourning is one of the most difficult-- Derrida would say impossible-- works that human beings undertake. What we attempt to do when we mourn the dead is, in a way, to keep them alive, to make them immortal in memory, to prolong and protract their "presence" even in spite of their painful and undeniable absence. But, alas, death is irreversible, and in that sense our mourning always fails to "keep" the beloved. And so we often introject the other (according to Freudian psychoanalysis, the "healthy" mourning) or incorporate the other (according to Abraham, the "pathological" mourning), but what all of these efforts demonstrate is that we are powerless to overcome our own mortality or the mortality of those we love.
Why is a failure to perform this work of mourning antidemocratic? First, because it alienates us from one another, weakens the bonds of community, and shortcuts a full recognition of the precariousness of human life and belonging that we all share in common. Second, because it fosters a false sense of security, a vision of the world in which violence has no consequences and loss is not suffered, thus undermining all of the reasons that democracies privilege debate and deliberation over war. Third, because suppressing the need to mourn-- publicly and without apology-- hardens and frustrates the human psyche, which spreads like an infection to all the other areas in which compassion and empathy for others ought to be activated. And those hardened psyches are far less capable of cooperatively determining what is in the best interest of their collectives, what is meant by the "public good" and how such good might be brought about without sacrificing the lives for the sake of which it is pursued in the first place.
Derrida once remarked that democracy was the only political form that presumed its own "historicity," that is, its own intractable embeddedness in time. The first and most important insight of that awareness is that things (and people) pass, they change, they deteriorate and they die. Democracy, like the human lives upon which it depends for meaning, is fundamentally defined by this fragility, indeterminacy and weakness. When we hide the signs and the images of those weaknesses-- painful as they may be-- we effectively deny them. And denying them is tantamount to denying our own historicity. It is an attempt to remove the uncertainty of all the unknown possibilities that attend temporal things and mortal lives, a kind of de-"if"-ication of ourselves and our collective that, in the end (and there is always an end), shows itself to be little more than self-sabatoge.