The Obama administration's decision to reverse the 18-year Pentagon ban on photography of soldiers' caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base is an important one for the public. Leaving the decision to military families to accept, or reject, public recognition of the service of their deceased is a respectful, Solomon-esque decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Anyone who was not on Mars during Captain Sully's recent heroic aqua landing on the Hudson knows how exemplary acts of courage, altruism, and heroism touch us all. In 2005, I wrote an article for Intervention Magazine comparing the way Italy honored its returning war dead from Iraq to the way America treated its own fallen military.
I cited the case of Nicola Calipari -- the Italian intelligence officer who rescued a kidnapped journalist from Iraqi captors, only to be gunned down by jittery American soldiers at a checkpoint in Baghdad.
I wrote then: "Calipari's return to Rome was a national event that united all Italians, merging their raw sorrow with the singular grief of his widow and children. It was the second time Italy pulled out all the stops for its Iraq War dead. In November of 2003, it staged an elaborate state funeral for nineteen of its citizens, killed in a suicide truck bombing in Nasiriyah.
In both instances, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his ministers, President Carlo Ciampi, and an honor guard in full-dress uniform stood with grieving families on the tarmac of Rome's Ciampino military airport to receive their dead. There were national days of mourning and public visitation hours to the reposed, and at night, the Coliseum's lights were dimmed in a mark of respect.
All Italy watched, on television, as officers from Italy's civil services carried the flag-draped coffins past honor guards representing every branch of the military. The Carabinieri (paramilitary corps), in their regal uniforms and blue-and-red plume hats, stood guard while lone buglers played the Last Post and other laments. Stricken Italians lined the routes of the funeral cortege to pay their respects, before the bodies were entombed in Rome's war memorial.
I suggested that the participation in these last rites, "symbolized a shared sacrifice between those who prosecute wars, those who must fight them, and those who grieve and honor them-not just the dead and their families, but the entire nation. The pageantry on display was no more excessive than the heroism of the fallen, for surely there can be no greater excess than surrendering one's life for one's country."
At the time I wrote those words, it had been one year since ABC's Ted Koppel had presented, The Fallen, his Nightline tribute to the soldiers who had died in Iraq. Mr. Koppel read the names off camera while the photographs of the dead men and women were projected on the screen. It was an elegy, remarkable for its quiet, sobering grace. Supporters of the war and George Bush naturally cried foul; any story that didn't fall into the Jessica Lynch mold of heroism (later learned to be void of key features of heroism, such as oh, heroism) was viewed as unpatriotic by the Pentagon's media machinery. Several broadcasting companies, including those owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, accused Mr. Koppel, a distinguished newsman who was/is no one's tool, for disseminating political propaganda.
There were 70,000 hits to my story on Intervention Magazine. Most readers agreed that we ought to honor our fallen soldiers, if not with the full pageantry, as seen in Italy, at least through media coverage, so that all American citizens would understand the cost of war. "The trouble is, I support the war as long as it doesn't cause me grief," wrote one poster.
The rest of my readers, Iraq War supporters all, spewing Mr. Bush's straight-jacket, postlogical logic -- we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here; so there were no WMD, so?; since Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11, we must bring them freedom and democracy so they don't perpetrate another 9/11 -- let me know that the Italians were excessive. They were adamant that we didn't need to show our war dead, and that the ban on photography at Dover Air Force Base did not need to be lifted.
They offer the same argument today, as they criticize Secretary Gates decision. Perhaps they're right. Instead of giving military families the choice to accept or reject public awareness of the return of their loved ones, similar to protocols for funerals already in place at Arlington National Cemetary, let's keep things the way they are. Yes, let's all pat ourselves on the back for being American patriots: let's fire up the grill, get plastered on booze, eat ourselves into a stupor, watch television, go shopping and call it Memorial Day.