The announcement by defense secretary Robert Gates on Feb. 26 that the Pentagon would lift a ban on taking pictures of service members' coffins coming home--as long as their families consent to it--was the latest volley in a debate on photographs of war dead that dates back to the Civil War.
Long before television and the Internet, graphic battlefield photos by Mathew Brady's corps of war photographers made their way into homes through photo-album books. (In Timothy O'Sullivan's 1863 Gettysburg tableau A Harvest of Death, you can practically hear the flies buzz over the bloated corpses.) The U.S. censored war photos during World War I, a policy that continued into World War II. But in 1943, President Roosevelt reversed the ban, believing Americans, unaware of the war's high cost, were becoming complacent. Vietnam, a generation later, was the media's war. Television broadcasts and searing photographs of the wounded and the dead helped turn public opinion against the conflict--of which George H.W. Bush was no doubt mindful. As President, he instituted the latest ban on coffin pictures in 1991, at the beginning of the first Gulf War (two years after TV networks juxtaposed images of him smiling and joking with reporters alongside footage of coffins coming back from the invasion of Panama). The Pentagon is now lifting that ban.(See pictures photographing the remains of the fallen.)
Concern for families' privacy aside, pictures of the sacrifices made for a justified war don't make people turn their back on it--just as prohibiting images of an ill-advised conflict cannot guarantee public support. When LIFE published one of the first photos of World War II casualties, its editors asked, "Why print this picture? Is it to hurt people? To be morbid?" Their conclusion: "The reason is that words are never enough."