You know that war we've been fighting in Iraq? Apparently Americans have been dying in it. This treacherous revelation was made in an Internet ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which uses images of flag-draped American coffins to argue for tossing out the G.O.P. majority. It took the Republican leaders more than a week to notice the ad existed, but when they did, the response was fairly predictable. "To use those images to rally Democrats and raise money I think is appalling," said House majority leader John Boehner.
The ad is not exactly subtle. Images of despair flash by: the coffins, soldiers near a burning car, Katrina victims at the Superdome, a gas-price sign. A red banner appears--red evil! Red scary!--reading, THINGS HAVE TAKEN A TURN FOR THE WORSE. We see Vice President Dick Cheney baring his teeth as if to take a bite out of a baby. Then a blue banner emerges--blue good! Blue safe!--as DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel talks to cops and a toddler smiles in a swing. The caption assures us, BUT AMERICA IS STRONG ENOUGH TO CHANGE.
O.K., the ad is a tad political. But politicizing? You can't politicize a war--because wars are political to begin with. Political leaders decide to fight them; elections determine what course they take or if they are fought at all. And Republicans have used harsh pictures in advertising too. The 2004 Bush campaign used images from the World Trade Center, including firefighters carrying off a flag-draped body--and was criticized for it by the Kerry campaign. (Indeed, Bush admaker Mark McKinnon told the New York Times he thought the Democrats' use of the coffin pictures was entirely appropriate.) After 9/11, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was one of the strongest advocates of showing horrible visuals of the attacks, to ensure that we never forget.
The fact is, contrary to the dictum that politics should stop at the water's edge, political decisions sure don't stop there. And their repercussions don't tap on the brakes when making the return trip, as the coffins starkly show. The message of the ad is simple and, in a democracy at war, legitimate: Let's get rid of the guys who signed off on this. (The fact that some of the guys who signed off were Democrats is an inconvenient subtlety the ad elides.) You can disagree with its argument, but to have that argument in an election--with plain words and, yes, images--is right and necessary.
The coffin flap is just the latest battle in a campaign to make the acknowledgment of American deaths in the war a traitorous act, as when conservatives assailed Ted Koppel for reading the names of war dead on Nightline in 2004. And it raises a question more important than a midsummer political blip: Why, after more than three years, are images of coffins returning from a war controversial at all?