Thursday, October 29, 2009

The dignified transfer: Obama at Dover AFB

Regardless of the voting of press photographers and media associations in any end-of-December tally of their favorite photographs of the year, we may already have the single best, most riveting — and potentially galvanizing — image of 2009.

More properly, it could be any of several images taken today at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, at the intake site where the bodies of American forces killed in action in Iraq, and Afghanistan are formally repatriated, returned to a grateful nation and any number of broken families.

Early this morning, outside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, in a symbolically profound and emotionally resonant break with modern presidential history, Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, stood at the foot of a C-17 transport plane and publicly saluted the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, of Terre Haute, Ind.

Griffin was one of 18 Americans killed, including three DEA agents, who died this week in Afghanistan. Ten died Monday when a military helicopter crashed after a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers. The eight others died Tuesday, slain by roadside bombs.

With 55 troops killed, October ends as the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the war started eight years ago.

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President Obama’s appearance at Dover emotionally punctuated the power of a recent shift in Pentagon policy. On April 1, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved a policy change that, under strict conditions, allows the media to record the Dover AFB transfer of the bodies of servicemen and women killed in action.

But what could have been another anonymous performance of the “dignified transfer” took on a stark new resonance with the president’s appearance. Obama’s salute finally, at the highest level, unifies the abstract experience of Americans at war with that war’s brutally visceral realities.

When a general calls for 40,000 more troops to fight in Afghanistan, it’s hard to get the mind around the human dimension of such a number. “40,000 more troops”: there’s a pieces-on-a-chessboard feel to the phrase itself; the words denature the human experience that’s behind them.

Standing silent at Dover, President Obama personalized not just the war but its ultimate, visible sacrifice in a way that will both burnish his biography and ennoble the office he holds.

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The power of the moment wasn’t lost on the man. "It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said later at the White House.

And Obama’s Dover salute can be seen another way: as, just possibly, a stunning and poignant rebuke to those on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who’ve basically called for the president to approve — consideration be damned — the request of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for an additional 40,000 forces in Afghanistan.

“Obviously,” he said, “the burden that both our troops and their families bear in any wartime situation is gonna bear on how I see these conflicts and … it’s something that I think about each and every day.”

The president is considering his options, which include more troops, fewer troops or a realignment of assets already in-country. Whatever’s ultimately decided, and when ever it’s decided, Obama has broken new ground for presidential decorum.

Historian Michael Beschloss said it tonight on MSNBC: “He wants to see the cost in person.” There's no greater tribute a president can make to the people he or she places in harm’s way. There may be no more eloquent statement this president can make about his decision on whether they should be in harm’s way at all.
Image credits: U.S. war casualties: Still from MSNBC.

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