Monday, April 26, 2004

Bang the Drum Slowly..And in Public

One of the most powerful sets of memories from my childhood is of the 1982 Falklands’ War between Britain and Argentina. I was 9 years old, and at the time I was living on a Royal Air Force station in Germany. I vividly recall the anti-aircraft missile detachment from the base heading to the South Atlantic in a blaze of patriotic glory.

Each night, the television news would show Royal Marines and paratroopers confidently drilling on the decks of converted ocean liners, Harrier jump jets leaping from their ramps, the mighty Royal Navy corkscrewing through the southern ocean, and reporters talking in hushed tones about special forces strikes and long range bombing runs.

Then as the Task Force anchored in San Carlos Water and the liberation of the Falklands got under way, things suddenly became very real. I remember seeing HMS Antelope exploding like Krakatoa as an Argentine missile hit home; HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor turning into floating funeral pyres; and horribly burnt teenagers staggering to shore from the Sir Galahad. I recall learning of the heroic yet senseless death of Colonel “H” Jones of 2 Para, sliced in half by an Argentine machine gun. I remember the bagpiper from the Scots Guards, playing Flowers of the Forest for the fallen after one vicious battle. Most of all, I remember the wrenching and stately sound of Elgar’s Nimrod being played over our dead as their flag draped coffins were borne off the transports by white gloved airmen in full dress uniform.

The liberation of the Falkland Islands was the reward; the corpses and the maimed were the price Britain paid. That balance sheet was presented in public and voters were able to weigh that particular profit and loss statement when the next election came around. That option is currently being denied the American people.

Since the days of Bush I, it has been Defense Department policy to refuse to release pictures of returning coffins or allow media coverage of the repatriation of remains from a war zone. Recently, freedom-of-information requests led to the release of a series of photos of the coffins of the hundreds of dead from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Defense Department is putting its foot down and will block the citizen’s legal right to know about those who are dying in our name in all future cases.

It is one of the marks of a democracy that a nation makes a full accounting of those who are killed or crippled on its behalf. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was in essence a eulogy for all who had died to that point in the Civil War, and every town in America has a cannon or two and a statue of a Civil War soldier to honor their sacrifice. The war memorial tradition on both sides of the Atlantic offers public tribute to those who fell in defense of freedom, and eternal flames over the graves of the unknown mark the hundreds of thousands blown to smithereens by industrial warfare. Our recent forebears were trusted with information that showed the cost of military action (casualty lists, and indeed pictures of returning coffins.) If the cause was just, it was reasoned, there was no need to deny the human price our societies were paying.

Contrast this with the historical actions of totalitarian states. Germany in World War Two and the Soviets in Afghanistan both sought to obscure and ignore casualty figures, as they would have been at odds with the rosy propaganda being pumped out over the conduct of their wars.

George W. Bush has insisted that our cause is just, that he considers protests and opinion polls to be no reflection of a nation’s feelings, and that he has no plans to “cut and run” from Iraq. Negative public opinion is dismissed as flack from the liberal chattering classes. If he is so confident of his cause, why then is he so reluctant to allow media images of the price of war? Why, if they “hate us for our freedoms”, is he so terrified of the First Amendment?

The official explanation for the policy is that the government has no desire to allow public intrusion on private grief, and that those who have died would be stripped of their dignity by showing them in the press or on television. Bush himself torpedoed that concept with one of his first campaign commercials. He figuratively draped himself in the flag he defended from the comfort of Texas during Vietnam while images of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were used to advocate four more years. Is it a question of scale? Is a photo of one coffin or a hundred coffins more sacred than real-time images of thousands dying? Is there more dignity in a commercial that serves as your job application than in a news report, Mr. Bush?

All this talk of privacy and dignity is a red herring. The decision not to show the coffins is purely political. LBJ was rent asunder by nightly images of Vietnam dead because the public weighed the equation of death versus cause, and found the cause wanting. Given the non-existent WMDs, the increase in Middle Eastern instability, and the distraction from the War on Terror the fighting in Iraq has thrown up, Bush is making the calculation that showing the human cost of his misguided policies would only weaken his re-election chances. He is obscuring and obfuscating the facts in order to keep his job. There was another Republican president of recent memory who used the same approach with the electorate: Richard Nixon.

Regardless of your opinion about Iraq your government should treat you like an adult. You should be allowed to weigh the balance and decide if the profit and loss statement you are being offered is a true accounting, or more akin to something presented by Mr. Bush’s friends at Enron.

Ask yourself this question; are you ashamed of those young troops on whose behalf we fly flags from our cars and tie yellow ribbons around lampposts? If you aren’t, call your representative and demand a lifting of the pathetic ban of images of coffins returning to the USA. Let’s instead demand a heroes’ welcome for each of them and grieve for their sacrifice as a nation.

No comments: