Commentary: Maybe we'll finally see flag-draped coffins

The Miami HeraldFebruary 19, 2009 

Maybe now we'll see what we have not been allowed.

Meaning coffins draped in our national colors, filled with the remains of our honored dead. The military has banned media from photographing coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware since 1991. This, after a 1989 incident in which some TV news outlets used a split screen to juxtapose images of deceased Americans being returned home with images of President George H.W. Bush joking with reporters at a live press conference. It was a cheap shot that made the president seem insensitive to the somber ceremony and the sacrifice it commemorated. Hence, the ban.

It was an understandable reaction. Also a wrong one. Asked last week at his first press conference if he would consider overturning the ban, President Barack Obama said the matter was under review. Consider this a vote for scrapping the ban with all deliberate speed. It is an ill-considered assault not simply on the public's right to know, but on its need.

Granted, the military doesn't see it that way. It says the ban is designed to protect the privacy of military families. This has always seemed a rather flimsy excuse.

You come closer to the truth, I think, in a quote that appeared recently in The Washington Post. Cal Peters, who lost a stepson in Afghanistan, and who opposes lifting the ban, told the paper Democrats want to do this "so they can publicize the negative side of the war and show the American public there is a high cost to be paid here."

Put aside the grieving stepfather's suggestion that this would be a partisan stunt. Grapple instead with his suggestion that there is something wrong in reminding people "there is a high cost to be paid" for war.

It's hard to understand why he thinks that a bad thing.

The most moral and widely supported war you can conceive is nevertheless an abomination. A less honorable war is an abomination without even the fig leaf of lofty purpose to confer nobility upon it. Which is why the Vietnam War is famously considered to have been lost, not in the jungles of South Asia, but in the living rooms of North America as a nightly barrage of graphic pictures on the evening news eroded public support. And why the military has been skittish about pictures ever since.

No, it's not as if we are lacking for images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advanced technology has shown us more of these wars than we ever saw of Vietnam. Yet paradoxically, we are at a greater remove from the fighting now than we were then. That's because there's no draft, no sense that every young man is called upon to make a stand, that every neighborhood has a son invested in this cause. Instead, the burden is borne by a few – volunteers and their families.

The rest of us are free to go shopping. We are not touched by these wars.

And we need to be.

I submit that the cost of war – whether the one everyone supports or the one no one does – is not something to be hidden from the people of a democracy. To the contrary, it is something they should never be allowed to forget. We need to know it. Otherwise, war becomes little more than a video game, death tolls just columns of numbers, and we forget to be judicious with the lives of our fellow citizens, forget to hold political and military leaders accountable for how and when and why those lives are spent.

The Obama administration has promised transparency. To continue this ban would do violence to that pledge. Let the coffins be borne from the planes, and let the cameras record it – and let the people see it and grow reverent and wise. Let them pause in their shopping and be touched and reminded that there is, indeed, "a high cost" to war.

Mr. Peters thinks Americans ought not know that. I respectfully disagree.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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