It’s been eighteen years since the media was accustomed to exhibiting the rituality and solemnity that surrounds the act of transporting fallen soldiers to their final resting place. In the desolate hours of the morning on October 28th, President Obama made an unannounced and unexpected trip to Dover, Delaware, the landing site of all war-fallen military personnel. His secretive mission, after gathering a small and select group of journalists, was to pay respects to eighteen lives that had been lost in Afghanistan in the previous week. These eighteen deaths made October the deadliest month for US troops abroad (VOA News).
After meeting with the families of the deceased and observing a prayer over the flag-draped caskets, seventeen of them were loaded into white mortuary vans and driven in to Dover. The remaining casket, belonging to Sgt. Dale Griffin, was carried to a different van where the media was authorized by his family to tape the ceremonial act of moving the soldier for transport to the Dover mortuary (Times Online). The video, available on all major news websites Wednesday, depicts six fatigued soldiers bearing the cloaked casket at their sides, marching slowly. The video concludes with Obama marching alongside the pall bearers as the van departs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjnTpdMFYx0).
The significance of these images is complex, due to a long controversial history over the ban against this type of media attention since 1991. During the first Gulf War George H. W. Bush placed a prohibition on media presence at Dover, Delaware, the largest repatriation and storage site of dead soldiers in the US. The official reason for imposing the ban, according to the first Bush administration, was to protect the privacy of the victims’ families (Fletcher). This justification seems slightly weak in the context of Wednesday’s video because the coffins are all draped with the same American flag, carried in the same respectful way, and are indistinguishable from each other.
At the time, many critics speculated that the ban may have actually stemmed from an embarrassing video of President Bush Sr. having a joke with reporters at a press conference on the invasion of Panama juxtaposed onscreen with lines of caskets arriving at Dover from Panama (Sloyan). Others speculated that the government wanted to hide the human cost of war in order to placate the masses into indifference (Fletcher). During WWII, Roosevelt fought the military’s decision to censor casualties because he feared that people would become apathetic to the war. This argument was surely expressed in a lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of military families who wanted to share their grief with the indifferent masses. They were defeated in 1996 (Ripley).
Once the ban was in place, the Pentagon occasionally bent its own rules to suit its publicity needs. In 1996, they publicized the return of the remains of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and thirty-two others who died with him in a plane crash in Croatia that April. In 2000 footage was released of flag-draped caskets holding victims of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole as they arrived at Dover (Ripley). Despite the high number of casualties in Iraq during the second Bush Administration, the vaults were shut tight while over the years public opinion has swayed toward keeping the casualties hidden. This trend appears to apply more strongly to military families as evidenced by the lack of cooperation by seventeen of the eighteen families on Wednesday morning. Groups such as the National Military Family Association of Alexandria, VA generally support the ban in order to “err on the side of caution” (Joyce Raezer qtd by Ripley).
In 2004 the controversy bubbled again briefly after activist Russ Kick of Tucson, AZ posted 361 photos from Dover on a website, http://www.thememoryhole.org, that he reportedly obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Pentagon released a response stating that the photos were probably given out in error. That same year an employee for a private defense contractor, Tami Silicio, was fired for having authorized one of her photos of draped coffins to be printed in the Seattle Times newspaper (Ripley). Ironically, the story that contained her photo would probably have remained obscure if it wasn’t for the sensational price she paid for sharing it.
Given the importance of symbolism to the history of this issue, Obama’s move Thursday morning could carry great weight in public discourse. As postmodern philosophers would point out and critics of George Bush Sr. may echo, the appearance of casualties from war, even when cloaked in wood and patriotic symbols, is what makes war real to the masses. Many families are overburdened with the cutting reality of war, having lost someone close to them, while many others work and sleep and drive without ever feeling the emotional cost of the war. At a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are losing popularity, and Obama is faced with developing a radical new strategy in those conflicts, what is the purpose of such a “choreographed” event? (quote by Fletcher).
I would argue that this public acknowledgement of human sacrifice is an important aspect of Obama’s diplomacy toward his own nation. The more dignity and respect he demonstrates, the more those values become real to the masses. As Americans navigate a world that remains perceptually nonexistent to them if not validated by the authoritative eye of the media, it is not only important, but critical that everyone witness some level of apparent reality because it triggers catharsis and empathy. Sharing these ritualized images of loss could possibly reduce the reality gap between those who experience the loss and those who are oblivious to it.
Wednesday’s spectacle could help the new Defense Department further an escalation agenda, or it could turn out to be a faint sign of the end, once we gain the luxury of retrospection. Whatever Obama’s intentions are for publicly acknowledging the dire consequences of war, it is itself a symbolic act of change. Bush the Second not only avoided Dover and all military funerals, he only occasionally acknowledged the dead at all - in private meetings with individual families (BBC News). Despite his promises to troops that he will keep them out of harms way unless absolutely necessary, an escalation in Afghanistan is highly possible in the coming year (VOA News). A public acknowledgement of the dead could be merely a performance of concern – visually emphasizing that those who create wars also empathize with the intense pain they cause. But there is also a less cynical possibility that Obama does genuinely feel the loss of thousands of families who visit Dover. Wednesday’s media spectacle could have been hinting at hope - foreshadowing a new decider becoming tired of making the old decisions.
Fletcher, Michael A.: “Obama in Dover as Fallen Troops Arrive Home.” Washington Post. October 29, 2009.
Ripley, Amanda: “An Image of Grief Returns,” Time Magazine. April, 24, 2004.
Sloyan, Patrick J.: “The War You Won’t See: Why the Bush Administration Plans to Restrict Coverage of Gulf War Combat,” Washington Post. January 13, 1991.
BBC News: “Obama Honours Afghanistan Killed.” October 29, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/americas/8331468.stm
Times Online: “Obama Breaks From Bush by Saluting Coffins of 18 Americans Killed in Afghanistan.” October 29, 2009. www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6895168
VOA News: “Obama Attends Return of Fallen US Soldiers From Afghanistan.” October 28th, 2009. www.voanews.com/english/2009-10-29-voa18.cfm