Dan Frazier seems an unlikely sort to spark a national firestorm. The soft-spoken former journalist runs a left-leaning website in Flagstaff, Ariz., offering political T-shirts and other items with such slogans as “Be Nice to America or We’ll Bring Democracy to Your Country.” It was one T-shirt, however, that made Frazier the Thomas Paine of the ready-to-wear rebel set. Last year, Frazier produced a T-shirt that read “Bush Lied … They Died.” He then listed the names of the fallen in Iraq: at the time 1,700 names (more than 800 short of the latest total).
One of those names belonged to Marine Cpl. Scott Vincent, who was killed in April 2004 by a suicide bomber. When his mother, Judy Vincent, saw her son’s name on the T-shirt, she was outraged and demanded legislative action in her state of Oklahoma. Various state legislators promptly made it a crime to use a soldier’s name or likeness for commercial gain without consent. Louisiana followed suit, and other states are considering such bills. Now, U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., has introduced a federal bill that would prohibit the use of the name or image of any current or former member of the military without permission.
The federal and state legislation raises serious constitutional questions.
In direct conflict with the First Amendment, the federal law would effectively prevent war critics from personalizing the true costs of the war. It is far more powerful for Frazier to say “Bush Lied … They Died” than the more common “Bush Lied … People Died.” It is precisely the type of personalization that war advocates have tried to prevent.
Draping the reality
When Ted Koppel announced that he would read the names and show the pictures of the (then 700) dead on Nightline in 2004, conservatives denounced him for undermining public support for the war, and Sinclair Broadcast Group refused to air the program. When the news media tried to photograph the returning caskets from Iraq, the administration barred them and later barred photographers from funerals without consent.
Politicians know that a war — particularly an unpopular war — is far easier to maintain in the abstract. It is often the personal images of war that change minds. One such mind was Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who had voted for the war in 2002. Jones recently told me how he began to question the war after he attended the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, a 31-year-old amphibian assault vehicle driver killed in Iraq in March 2003 while trying to evacuate the wounded.
Even years later, Jones fought back tears as he described sitting at the funeral with Bitz’s wife, Janina, and their four sons (ages 7 and 2 as well as twin baby boys whom Bitz never met). As Jones gradually concluded that he had been misled on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the Bitz funeral continued to gnaw at him, and he began to question the real costs and purpose of this war — eventually going public with his opposition in June 2005.
When people such as Koppel or Jones or Frazier publish the names or likenesses of the fallen, they are trying to reveal the raw realities of this war as well as their sense of national grief over the loss of our best and our bravest citizens. After all, covering or overseeing or opposing this war is no abstract exercise. Too often, our national discourse becomes deadened to the real costs. It is too antiseptic, too clinical to have real meaning or relevance. Just as it is hard to imagine more than $300 billion spent on the war, it is hard to fully appreciate the meaning of nearly 2,600 dead and more than 19,000 wounded troops.
Frazier has learned something about the costs of personalizing war. He has received threatening calls and could be prosecuted. Yet, his message has resonated with many. Frazier told me that he has run out of the T-shirts but that he still sells magnetic vehicle signs with the design. Recently, a woman who lost a loved one in Iraq bought two dozen signs.
War as a weapon
When Congress starts to regulate the images that can be used to oppose the war, you know things are not going well on the home front. It wants to deny opponents of any face or name that would remind citizens of the true costs. Of course, members who support the war will continue to use men and women in Iraq as justifications for their re-election. Likewise, when President Bush turned an aircraft carrier and its personnel into a giant photo op to declare “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, there was not a whimper of opposition from these self-righteous members.
Whether it is caskets, funerals or even T-shirts, the politicians would prefer to keep the fallen out of sight and out of mind. If he doesn’t want to go to jail, Dan Frazier will just have to speak for the fallen without mentioning any names; a war with all flags but no faces. Ironically, the administration might have succeeded on a practical, if not a political, level. There are now so many names, Frazier is not sure he can fit them on a T-shirt.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.