Of Context and Caskets: No Wrongdoing in Controversial Photo

A US Air Force investigation into a controversial photo depicting an airman in a metal remains container (casket) determined there was no “criminal wrongdoing.”

Investigators have concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing by the airmen who posed for a picture around an open casket case with another airman inside wearing a noose around his neck and chains across his body.

The article does not say the airmen were punished; however, their instructors (they were students in a training squadron) were given administrative punishment.

The official explanation of the photo:

“The photo was intended by those who took it to remind the students that they could be killed if they failed to pay attention while loading and unloading aircraft,” the 37th Training Wing news release said.

An accompanying caption to the photo, “Da Dumpt, Da Dumpt…Sucks 2 Be U,” refers to the sound a cargo pallet makes when it is transferred onto an aircraft, wing spokesman Gerry Proctor said.

“The theme of the photo was based upon a safety warning that the instructor continuously gave to the students, and that is to pay attention to the pallet because those things can have tonnage on them and it can kill you if you’re not paying attention to it,” Proctor said…

“The students picked up on this continual reinforcement of the safety issue when handling these pallets, and their creativity got the best of them in creating this photo,” he said.

(Update: The Air Force published the full version of its press release.)  The explanation is reasonable and consistent with the traditional culture within the military training environment.

If nothing else, the incident around the photo revealed the difficulty of the general American public understanding what occurs in military units and under what circumstances those things occur.  For example, every single military member goes through training units as a student, some several times over.  Many, if not most — including pilot training, IFF, and fighter b-courses — expect the student classes to join together in esprit d’corps, which includes creating a class patch, stickers, slogans, and morale photographs.  (The controversial photo is described as a “class photo.”)

“Photoshop” and video editing are practically miniature career fields within each of these professions, with each class virtually guaranteed to have a “video geek” capable of producing seemingly professional graduation videos — as well as the not-fit-for-public-consumption class video/photos.  (The military academies, USAFA in particular, have some decent YouTube videos.)  In fact, these homegrown efforts are sometimes done so well they become official productions.

Context, obviously, is important.  The photo at issue was found on Facebook during a tense period in which the Air Force was under public scrutiny for mishandling remains, including “dumping” them in a local landfill (though those incidents happened in prior years).

Imagine if a photograph of a Soldier chowing down on barbecue, with the caption “I love me some PORK!” was released to the public…during Ramadan.  Or consider the politically incorrect insinuations of a scantily clad woman perched on the official desk of a uniformed US Air Force Colonel, as above.

The military doesn’t necessarily want to stifle creativity and morale, but there are certainly times it must address the public repercussions of even innocent productions.  Specific to this case, military remains containers understandably carry far more significant meaning for, say, the Army and Marines in Afghanistan right now than they did for the students using them as a training aid.  The Air Force was right to address their concerns, but it was also right not to crucify what was, at most, an unforeseeable issue of perception, not maliciousness.  The Air Force seemed fairly clear it considered the incident “unfortunate” as much for the perception as for what actually happened:

An investigation…found that the photo of the airmen, who were learning to palletize and load cargo planes, was an inside joke.  The idea was to make light of repeated instructions from trainers to lock down pallets, a spokesman said. The airman’s “death” was a result of his own neglect in not properly doing his job…

“It was unfortunate for them the message was very cryptic. The public didn’t understand it…”

“The class photo brought strong public reaction and seemed to slight our fallen heroes,” a training group statement said. “The message had powerful, but cryptic visuals, leaving the interpretation open.”

Many times stories or photos from “inside” the military will find their way to the public. It is frustrating for many when those outside the military, or even outside a specific career field within the military, fail to consider the context or the facts about what often amounts to an indictment against the US military as a whole.

Just because a photo of a casket with “da dumpt” appears in the press, it doesn’t mean US Air Force Airmen are making light of the sacrifices of fellow servicemembers.  Likewise, two shoe boards leaned against a rock are not necessarily a Christian hate crime.

Regardless of the public statement, photo, or video, it’s worth taking time to consider the facts — including the context and culture — before jumping to a judgment.