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Respect for the Honorable Dead

I've been giving this news — in a report from Dana Milbank, who is often helpful to the anti-Bush crowd — quite a bit of thought since Steve of Absit Invidia made an anti-Bush screed out of it. Here's the basis for the controversy:

Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped caskets.

To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution: It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases.

In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive arrived from the Pentagon at U.S. military bases. "There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to include interim stops," the Defense Department said, referring to the major ports for the returning remains.

Here's Steve's reaction:

This president, who makes a fetish of Military worship, has never attended a funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. That, like the images of 330 flag draped coffins is bad politics... So much for the 'honorable man' propaganda that we've been spoon fed. An honorable leader would accept responsibility for his actions, justify them in terms of national security, and pay at least token homage to the kids killed on his watch. Running from politically damaging images isn't honorable, it's cowardly.

Every patriotic American - even many of us on the Libertarian Right - accepts as a necessary evil Military censorship of events impacting operational security. I'm satisfied knowing the complete and exhaustive whys, hows, and what fors of battles after they've happened. I don't need a heads up before an operation is launched.

But no American - even the strongest supporter of Mr Bush's administration - can justify a policy that censors the freedom of the press for political ends. And that's exactly what this policy does.

So where's the outrage?

The reason I've spent so much time with this report and Steve's question is that I don't believe that it is possible to honor fallen American military personnel too much. And I would not have us shying away from acknowledging their sacrifice and showing our gratitude for it by facing up to the consequences. However, both Steve's summary of the practice and his call for outrage oversimplify the issue.

Historically, according to Milbank, ceremonies for arriving coffins didn't begin until the Carter administration, after Vietnam, and were performed under and often attended by Reagan. When the first President Bush came to office, the practice continued until 1991, perhaps (or perhaps not) ending in part as a response to the newsmedia's covering a press conference given by the president while on the other part of a split screen coffins passed by. That's not the sort of thing that television newsrooms do by accident.

Under Clinton, certain arrival ceremonies were open to the press, although it looks like they were mostly for people who died in accidents or terrorist attacks (not Mogadishu?). And the second President Bush continued the practice through the Afghanistan war.

In other words, even beyond the justifications offered by the administration and the Pentagon (which you can read for yourself in the article), ending press coverage of arriving coffins was not a dramatic reversal of longstanding tradition. This is particularly true when it is considered that, as far as I can tell, such ceremonies have almost exclusively been performed after limited missions or discrete events, not as part of ongoing wars. As for President Bush's having not attended any funerals or memorials, even Milbank admits that Bush has marked — with at least "token homage" — the losses in speeches and has met with soldiers' families.

Now, nobody should doubt that the major media, which has proven itself to be more than sympathetic with anti-Bush sentiments, and the President's political enemies would endeavor to transform such ceremonies into propaganda points for their own causes. And it simply isn't the case that freedom of the press requires that cameras be allowed anywhere at any time. The press is free to cover local ceremonies and to report on the lives and deaths of those who've perished in Iraq.

Moreover, it seems to me beyond plausibility to suggest that President Bush has attempted to ignore, therefore refusing to pay tribute to, those who have died. He's merely done so without the fanfare, showing humble respect, without the false piety made so famous by his predecessor. In doing so, he has allowed the dead to remain local heroes, to remain somebody's son or daughter, father or mother, friend, family — not coffins moving across the television screen, paraded in aggregate as propaganda for those who have no solution to the danger that our nation faces but to undo the progress that the heroes died to make.

ADDENDUM (a week later):
As Glenn Reynolds notes, Maureen Dowd, ever quick to catch up with anti-Bush themes, has finally caught this one. Hey, maybe she's been trawling the blogs looking for material (hi, Mo!). As seems often to be the case, she makes my point by trying to make the opposite. Consider:

This sort of airbrushing is tasteless, because it diminishes our war heroes instead of honoring them. And pointless, since news outlets are running the names of the dead every day and starting to focus more on the heart-rending stories of the maimed.

Political calculations have now trumped the proclamations of virtue and symbolism that this White House would normally embrace.

It's bad enough to try to hide critical information when you can get away with it. It's really insulting to try to hide it when you can't get away with it.

Let me get this straight; the administration has "diminish[ed] our war heroes" by taking away the image of rows of coffins and leaving only the names and stories of the men and women in them?

Note that the President's actions in this respect so conflict with Ms. Dowd's caricature of him that she can only guess that he is making foolish and useless "political calculations" that conflict with a posture that he "would normally embrace." As I suggested back when the Plame Game was still limited to online whispers, Bush's enemies want so badly to see no good in him that they simultaneously credit him with historic degrees of cunning and deception and trump up controversies that would require him to be a bumbling political operative.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:08 PM EST