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By Bill Gallagher

Editors' note: As of Sunday, April 25, a total of 718 American sons and daughters have come home from Iraq in flag-draped coffins, 117 in April alone. While President George W. Bush does not seem to be concerned about this -- he hasn't attended a single military funeral since launching the war -- he does seem to be concerned about the American people seeing images of the carnage his disastrous policies have wrought.

DETROIT -- It is an image of dignity and respect -- photographs of flag-draped coffins. Some of the pictures show white-gloved soldiers doing their somber duty carrying the remains of the fallen. One is a poignant scene of the inside of a cargo plane where 20 coffins are secured to be flown to the military mortuary in Dover, Del.

The photos are riveting and thought-provoking. You think of young lives lost and the grief anguished families are experiencing. There is nothing exploitive about the pictures. They are, above all, respectful and reverential.

The images, however, capture the tragic reality of war and that's why George W. Bush doesn't want you to see any more of them. The truth is the president's torturer, and any image that challenges his arrogant fantasies must be stopped.

He has succeeded in creating a false image of himself, and he has been widely successful in selling the phony reasons for war and images he's fabricated to the American people. Grim, vivid reality cannot be tolerated.

The first picture published came from a military contract employee who took the shot of a transport plane loaded with the coffins while it was parked at the Kuwait International Airport. Tami Silicio and her husband, David Landry, were fired because they "violated Department of Defense and company policies by working together to photograph and publish the flag-draped caskets of our servicemen and women being returned to the United States," said William Silva, president of Maytag Aircraft.

Silva admits the firings came after the Seattle Times published the picture and he told the Washington Post the military had "very specific concerns" about the photo. The couple did not accept money and Silicio says her only motive was to let Americans share in the grief and to show parents of the dead how respectfully remains are treated and that "their children weren't thrown around like a piece of cargo."

A few days later, Russ Kick, a First Amendment activist, won a long struggle with the Air Force to obtain photos of Iraq war dead. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request that was initially denied. Kick appealed and the Air Force relented, sending him 361 pictures of coffins arriving at the Dover Air Force Base.

Military photographers took the pictures for historic reasons. The photos are professional, subdued and, of course, dignified. But when Kick posted the pictures on his Web site, www.thememoryhole.org, the White House and the Pentagon went into a tizzy.

President Bush said he wants to protect the privacy of the families and no more coffin photos will be released. A Pentagon official insisted the ban was not related to any concern about public opinion. Sure.

John Molino, a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, said the censorship is necessary because "we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be subject to any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified."

The censorship has nothing to do with protecting dignity and has everything to do with protecting George W.'s political hide. Actually, his father first initiated the ban on public access to pictures and videos of returning war dead in 1991.

As Gulf War I began, Bush the Elder feared a repeat of the Vietnam-era images of an unrelenting stream of coffins returning home. Forget a free society and a Constitution that protects expression, these are forbidden images, unfit for the eyes of the American people.

Barbara Bush, wife and mother of the presidents, already stated her aversion to such unpleasant images, and perhaps she's making the call here.

In March of last year, as the invasion of Iraq began, Mrs. Bush told Diane Sawyer of ABC News that she wouldn't watch any television reports about her boy's war because, she said, "Why should we hear about body bags and death and how many? ... Oh, I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

Jane Bright of West Hills, Calif., disagrees. Her 24-year-old son Evan Ashcraft was killed in combat in Iraq last July. She told CBS, "We need to stop hiding the deaths of our young. We need to be open about their deaths."

President Bush fears openness about anything, especially Iraq. He and his handlers want to control every image and the reality of war -- death, suffering and destruction -- must be suppressed.

It's all about images. While money is the mother's milk of politics, image is the honey. Sweet and smooth, it cloaks and covers, dominating what it touches.

The bees in the Bush White House are always busy, working to ensure that the images they create will stick in the public's mind. Any other image, not of their making, will be forbidden, squashed or censored.

One image they hoped would endure forever was the triumphant commander in chief in his flyboy suit strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier draped with a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."

We never saw the reality of worried Pentagon professionals who knew Iraq was still a tinderbox and that planning for a post-Saddam nation ranged from little to nonexistent.

We never saw the image of the search for the outlawed weapons arsenals we were told were there and were the most urgent reason for the invasion and war. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told us he knew "exactly" where to find them.

Then there is the image of the brave and compassionate crusader -- the president paying a surprise visit, serving a prop Thanksgiving turkey dinner to the thrilled and hungry troops in Iraq. Those chosen for the meal, the image -- and, thus, the politically correct photo op -- were picked based on their race and gender.

The reality we didn't see was the other troops eating cold sandwiches because Halliburton, the company given the no-bid contract for military food service in Iraq, regularly screwed up and used the concession to overbill the taxpayers millions of dollars for meals never served.

The image of Saddam's big statue toppling left the desired impression that this was not aggression and imperialism but rather liberation, and that George W. Bush, the father of freedom in the Middle East, was doing God's work.

We never see the reality of occupying forces shutting down newspapers and shooting reporters and photographers.

Bush loves the image of the despised, bearded and disheveled Saddam Hussein rooted from hiding in his spider-hole. Here's the murderous dictator whose regime posed an immediate threat to our national security. The next picture we'll see of him will be in the hangman's noose.

The reality we don't see is President Reagan's special envoy to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, presenting the then-beloved Saddam an expensive pair of cowboy boots from Ronald Reagan in recognition of their great friendship.

Rumsfeld also provided Saddam with U.S. satellite photos the Iraqi "madman" would then use to guide nerve gas attacks on Iranian soldiers and Kurdish villages. We helped Saddam use horrible weapons on his own people, and now we're going to put him on trial.

In his new book, "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward tells us Bush gave the order to commence the war with the image of noble, public purpose, as the gallant protector of our national security, telling the generals this must be done "for the peace of the world and the freedom of the Iraqi people."

The realty is a world with less peace and more violence, and the Iraqi people are far from freedom in a land increasingly hostile to the "liberating" armies. It's a bloody mess. America is less secure and we have never been more despised in the Arab world.

George W. and Field Marshall Rumsfeld sell the image of free enterprise and a new, sovereign Iraqi government bringing freedom, peace and stability there.

The reality is that the "privatized" war has produced profiteering, mercenaries, cronyism and corruption, and the American taxpayers will get stuck with the tab as our Iraqi puppets enjoy the looting.

But, sadly, Bush's use of image works very effectively and truth doesn't trump it. A new poll shows that 57 percent of Americans still believe Saddam gave "substantial support" to al-Qaeda. The University of Maryland survey also shows 45 percent have the impression that there was "clear evidence" Iraq worked closely with Osama bin Laden, and 60 percent believe that Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a major program to develop them.

There is no evidence or truth to any of those beliefs, but it shows we are clearly living in an age of cognitive dissonance, in which people cling to whatever fits their own opinions and facts don't interfere with their false beliefs.

That's just the way the president likes it and his drones in the corporate media helped him do it. George W. Bush is politically secure as long as the American people are content licking the honey of his images and refuse to swallow the bitter reality and truth of his deeds.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 27 2004