Sanitizing war

Journalists in the U.S. complained for most of the Bush administration that they weren’t allowed to photograph the returning caskets of U.S. soldiers. They alleged the ban sanitized war.

Now that the Obama administration is allowing — with permission of families — the photographing of the homecomings, journalists have taken to sanitizing war on their own.

The images are compelling, disturbing and, of course, sad. The captions below the photographs are not.

Take both of the Twin Cities Daily newspapers.

The Star Tribune documented the arrival of the body of Army Specialist James Wertish on over the weekend.


Said the caption: “An Army team carried a transfer case containing the remains of Army Specialist James Wertish on Saturday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Wrtish, 20, of Olivia, Minn., was one of three Minnesotans who died Thursday in Basra, Iraq.

Transfer case? It sounds like something you’d put groceries in. Not a body. Not a human. Transfer cases are part of the transmission of four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Another Minnesotan, Daniel Drevnick of Woodbury, arrived home on Saturday.


Said the Pioneer Press: “An Air Force team removes transfer cases containing the remains of Minnesota National Guard members Spc. Carlos Wilcox, Spc. James Wertish and Spc. Daniel Drevnick on Saturday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.”

Both papers used transfer cases. Both described the people carrying them as a team

Back before the Bush administration, we called them coffins or caskets; words which may be technically insufficient, but made clear that someone’s son, brother, or husband was inside, and he is dead.

Instead of “teams,” they were referred to as “honor guards,” reinforcing that the dead deserved no less.

Other dead soldiers coming home got almost the same sanitized treatment:

An Army carry team carries a transfer case containing the remains of Pfc. Nicolas Hugh Joseph Gideon at Dover Air Force Base, Del., July 7, 2009. – Anchorage Daily News.

An Army carry team carries a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Chester W. Hosford of Hastings, Minn. Wednesday July 8, 2009 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. – Minnesota Public Radio.

An Army Corps carry team carries the transfer case containing the body of U.S. Army Pfc. Justin A. Casillas, 19, of Dunnigan, during a transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Monday, July 6. – Woodland (Calif.) Democrat

This is what George Carlin called “soft language.”

“I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse.”

(Photos: Associated Press)

  • bj

    Words do matter.

    here is a link from defense link thought you might find it interesting.

  • Tyler

    How can we tie this in to NPR’s use of the term “enhanced interrogation” ?

  • Bob Collins

    Thanks for the link, bj. Looks like an old formula is being used again. The military comes up with the terms and then the media starts using them. Next thing you know, innocent civilians becomes “collateral damage.”

  • bj

    Must be a new term. I really had to search to get somthing other than Transfer cases for transmissions.

    would “temporary coffin” be the correct term? Transfer coffin?

    I’m sure some well meaning people came up with the name. So as to not upset family members but as you point out it is now being used to sanitize war.

  • CaliGuy

    Hey Bob-

    I agree with Carlin. Which brings me to MPR’s/NPR’s constant use of the phrase, “shedding jobs”, as in, “IBM shed 300 jobs Monday…”

    Just as the captions you identify seem to dehumanize the deceased, “shedding jobs” dehumanizes the living, and newly, jobless.

  • Bob Collins

    //I’m sure some well meaning people came up with the name.

    It was the military. It specializes in coming up with names that make things sound less bad than they really are.

    //”shedding jobs” dehumanizes the living, and newly, jobless.

    Yep, although I’d like to see a way to quickly make clear how many PEOPLE are being thrown out of work vs. jobs being eliminated through attrition or posted jobs not being filled.

  • Mark


    I love listening to your commentary on my drive home. Great insight and wit.

    Just a quick explanation of the confusing terms you pointed out:

    It really is a “transfer case”. It’s basically a big steel cooler with tie down straps. And the Soldiers who off load it are, while dignified, just a “team”.

    However, when leaving Dover, the remains are placed into a casket and carried by an Honor Guard.

    For example, see the Star Trib article and photos about Father Vakoc

    I don’t mean to be technical (or petty) but different terms are used because there is a difference between the two events. I can see your point that the different terms can be confusing for civilians.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t argue that it’s NOT a transfer case. I argue that the search for technical specificity, we have removed the humanity. Whether that’s the intent is open to argument.

    If you go back and look at the media stories during the flare-up over whether any of this can be photographed, the containers were always referred to as coffins (or caskets).

    Heck, why even deal with either? Why not just say the soldiers are carrying the BODY of the dead soldier? Also technically true.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Bob, I think your issue is with Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, not “the Obama Administration.”

    You seem to be suggesting that the military is intentionally using “softer” language to sanitize the harsh realites of war. However, you offer little evidence to back up your claims.

    For example, was there an official change in terms that was made in the past six months? If so, who issued this order, and why?

    Unless you have some further proof showing the intent of the military public affairs staff to “sanitze war,” Bob, I suggest you direct your complaints to the Letters to the Editor section.

    Regardless of the technical names the military uses, the newspapers are solely responsible for the words they publish.

  • sm

    This is euphemizing run amok.

    These should be called “body coolers” or “body cases”; at least get the word “body” in the description, such as “body bag”.

    Maybe the military could adopt the Heaven’s Gate description of death as “leaving their containers”. So then they’d have “container transfer cases”. Try to figure that one out.

  • Bob Collins

    Bob Moffitt:

    I’m reposting the 2nd paragraph. Let me know if you’re still confused:

    Now that the Obama administration is allowing — with permission of families — the photographing of the homecomings, journalists have taken to sanitizing war on their own.

  • BJ

    @ Bob Moffitt

    I don’t think Bob Collins even implied that the Obama Administration was directly involved. I think he also makes the point that the “Press” is using “Terms” the “Military” has asked them to use. And does imply that the “Press” should think about what they are writting. Your little evidence line is way off base, when have you even heard the term Transfer case!

    Also I know you read this on a regular basis, Collins comments on what other “press” does all the time, this is not new ground. Pretty lame comment to tell him to write a letter to editor.

  • BJ

    ooh see that Collins posted a response to Bob Moffitt while I was typing mine.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I WAS confused, and I’m sorry I missed the mark, Bob. Consider my rant withdrawn. As a former Army public affairs specialist, I am a little sensitive on this topic.

    I blame ethanol, and the smoking ban (g).

    Yes, I know Bob writes on media matters all the time. But if you want change, don’t just post a blog post. Embarass them in their own price.

  • Bob Collins

    We’ve “known” each other a long time, Bob. Apologies not in order.