Saturday, April 11, 2009

War’s ultimate cost, visible

On Friday, a suicide truck driver set off more than 2,000 pounds of explosives near the Iraqi National Police headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, killing, among others, five American soldiers. It was the deadliest attack against U.S. forces in more than a year, the Army Times reported.

The process has already started: Five more American families will soon endure the grim visitation of uniformed officers arriving in the driveway with the worst possible news. Five more families will reckon with memories, and thwarted promise, and the need for closure.

Closure. That’s the word employed so often to describe the needs of those affected by tragedy, families that seek the resolution of some outstanding issue — a fugitive suspect, a legal technicality, a judicial complication — that prevents them from grieving properly for the dear departed.

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For 18 years now, military families and the nation they represent have had that emotional finality abridged when it comes to the visible repatriation of American armed forces killed fighting either of two wars in the Middle East. Those families have seen their heroes, our heroes, return to America under cover of an official darkness that has made their homecoming almost invisible. For 18 years, photos of the caskets of slain servicemembers were prohibited.

No more. The United States has reversed its policy of not allowing media coverage of fallen servicemen and women killed in action. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on April 1 approved a policy change that, under strict conditions, allows the media to record the transfer of the bodies of fallen servicemembers' remains at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The reversal went into effect on Monday.

Gates had already announced his intention to change the bitterly debated policy last month, at a March 18 news conference. “We are committed to seeing that America's fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned,” he said.

Media access to the Dover transfer ceremonies will be “modified to allow media access, when approved by the immediate families of the individual fallen," Gates said in a March 25 press release.

That fast, with not much more than the stroke of a pen, the policy begun in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, during the Gulf War is retired. It’s scant comfort for many families of the 4,263 other American servicemembers killed in Iraq, or the 677 Americans killed, to this date, in Afghanistan. But Gates’ order undoes one of our government’s more hotly debated and emotionally disturbing policies.

The Bush #41 policy reinforced the obscenely preposterous idea that war is an antiseptic exercise of political will, one whose devastating personal impact can be mitigated by invisible ceremonies far from public scrutiny. The thanks of a grateful nation recorded secretly and surgically. Bush #43 continued the policy, set it in stone even as the casualties from the Iraq war escalated.

Gates’ reversal of policy wisely recognizes the relentless intrusions of a 24/7 media; and perhaps somewhat cannily understands the shift of the American people’s attitude toward the war in Iraq, and what it’s costing us.

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But mostly Gates’ change in policy seems to get who this war is costing us. The individuals. The people, from cities and small towns on both coasts and everywhere in between. By opening the door of media exposure to this most solemn series of events, it opens the door to letting the nation grieve, openly and properly and with a full acknowledgment of exactly what’s at stake when this nation goes to war.

The issue’s bigger than the crawl line at the bottom of the TV screen. It’s bigger than the ten seconds of reporting from the talking heads at 11 o’clock. It’s bigger than these things because when the story is properly told, in images and in words, it sharply distills for our visual culture the bigness of small things, of individual human beings we won’t see again, people whose passing diminishes us all.

So many lives have been absented suddenly, lives that in too many cases had hardly begun. They’re lives to which we barely had a chance to say hello. The new policy of the United States rightly, finally, gives the nation at least a chance at a proper goodbye.
Image credits: Top: Still from MSNBC. Gates: Still from C-SPAN. Bottom: Still from Department of Defense via AP.

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