National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Fallen heroes deserve better


During the worst days of fighting in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein took steps to insure that his people did not know how many soldiers were being killed and wounded. Trucks bringing casualties to the cities did so only after dark, and grieving families were ordered to keep funeral services brief.

The Bush administration appears to have learned a lesson from the former dictator. In April a military contractor and her husband were fired after the photos she took of 20 flag-draped coffins at Kuwait International Airport were published in violation of Department of Defense rules.

Commenting on the photo, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense John Molino stated, “We don’t want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted and undignified.” In what sense is acknowledging those who have fallen “unwarranted”? Why shouldn’t they receive attention by way of our final respects? Didn’t they die fighting for their country? The real indignity is secreting them into the country as if they never existed, little more than names and numbers on a fatalities list. Molino’s statement is Pentagon doublespeak for “We don’t want you to see the bodies, because then you might start thinking.” Out of sight, out of mind.

While abstract descriptions of casualties (“Four soldiers killed when their convoy is ambushed”) convey bare-bones factual information, they are devoid of emotional content. Seeing military caskets is a much more visceral experience than reading casualty figures on the printed page or hearing them uttered on radio or television. Nothing portrays a more vivid statement of war than viewing the coffins of those who fought it.

In June 1969, Life magazine published a photo along with the military affiliation (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps) of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam between May 28 and June 3 of that year. For the first time the nation could see what seven days worth of dead service personnel looked like. We should be doing the same every week, in every military conflict. And not only a photo, but a biographical sketch of the dead so we can see who they were, catch a glimpse of what they might have become. How can we truly honor those who have fallen when we don’t even know who they are? Without this knowledge, it is too easy for those of us who have not lost a loved one to get caught up in meaningless bravado and knee-jerk patriotism.

But seeing the faces of those who died, learning something of their too-short lives inevitably leads to the question: Is this conflict worth the sacrifice? For many, it is hard to answer affirmatively when the struggle is deemed necessary and just and that much harder in a morally ambiguous war.

Every time a military transport plane arrives with war fatalities, television networks should interrupt normal broadcasting and cover this solemn occasion. If the American public can’t stomach the sight of dead service personnel, it has no business sending young men and women abroad to fight and die.

As a nation we have a schizophrenic attitude toward military personnel. We send them off to war with pageantry, plaster vehicles with “I support our troops” bumper stickers, but raise not a whimper when the government denies us the right to see the dead return home and to welcome them to their final resting place.

The fundamental responsibility of a democratic government is to be honest and forthright with its citizens. This administration’s ill-advised secrecy policy regarding military fatalities is nothing short of blatant deception. It demeans the living and dishonors the dead.

George J. Bryjak is a former U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam and is now professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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