Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Grief, honor, and politics

So the military has decided to allow media coverage of military coffins coming home to Dover Air Force base. The CNN article (via Villainous Company) quotes the mother of a serviceman who died in Iraq as saying:

I wanted the nation to grieve with me, and if we don't see those images we don't know that these young men and women are dying.

And to me it's an honor to have an honor guard at Dover when they're bringing these men and women back through the mortuary. But we've never been able to see those pictures of the honor being given.

I don’t have any quarrel with her wish to have the nation grieve with her or her wish to be able to see for herself - and have the rest of the nation see - the honor given to the war dead. I have long believed that the separation between those who serve in the military and those who have no contact with military is dangerous for both the oblivious society and the ignored military. Furthermore, we do owe those who pay the ultimate price for us grief and honor.

The problem is that it seems unlikely opening the ceremonies to the media will result in knowledge or acknowledgment, in grief or honor. Instead the pictures will most likely become a backdrop to a steady drumbeat of anti-war rhetoric. In other words, the caskets of men and women who died for a cause in which most of them believe will be used to vilify that very cause.

At one time, Michael Moore had up on his Website - without permission - a Michael Yon photograph of a dead Iraqi child named “Farah”. Yon objected to this and his post about it is a remarkably clear statement of why intent matters:

But at some point, especially when the material is used to make political points, images of combat can cross the line into pornography. People die in war, but we must never forget that each casualty is a human being ... The photo, as I took it, is the truth, but Moore uses it – illegally – to convey falsehoods. His mind is that of a political propagandist who sees Farah’s death not as a human tragedy, but a tool.

That is what I fear will happen at Dover: the pictures will be the truth but the message conveyed will be a falsehood. The media will show the dead but say nothing about what they themselves believed about risking death.

The decision is made, however, and now all we can do is watch and see how the media uses this access. If they treat the arrivals at Dover with respect (think the “In Memoriam” segment of This Week with George Stephanopoulos) then lifting the ban will provide an opportunity for the larger society to reconnect with the military, to grieve with their families, and to honor their courage. If, as I fear, the media treats the arrivals as a reason to denigrate the very reason for which the servicemembers died (think Keith Olbermann) then lifting the ban will be exquisitely and unforgivably cruel.

More prosaically, if the media does take the “Dover caskets as anti-war propaganda” approach, Obama may find himself with a serious political problem. Now that Obama has announced a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, he can probably continue to blame - or count on the media to blame - Bush for the war dead from that country until the “combat mission” end date of August 31, 2010. Afghanistan, however, will rapidly become Obama’s war, if it has not already done so.

Obama has committed 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and may commit more. However much the media adores Obama, they will be hard-pressed to avoid laying the arriving Afghan war dead at his feet. And if the American public’s acceptance of casualties is based on their belief that “a war is worth fighting” then the news that while 50% of all Americans think Afghanistan is worth fighting only 36% of Democrats agree indicates the ceremonies at Dover may cause Obama trouble with his own party.

Finally, a note about word choice. The CNN article I cite above begins:

The Pentagon will lift its ban on media coverage of the flag-draped coffins of war victims arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

“Victims”? A child caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting is a victim. An old lady with early Alzheimer’s scammed out of her life savings is a victim. Men and women who chose to join the military, served their country bravely, and died in her defense are not victims. They are honorable and courageous and deserve - demand - our respect and our admiration, not our pity.

No comments: