While asking retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey about the president’s plan to draw down the troops in Iraq, Matt Lauer segued Friday morning into another military question du jour, the lifting of the ban on photographing the coffins of returning casualties.
For those not following closely at home, the Pentagon has long banned pictures and videos of the flag-draped coffins coming off the planes at Dover Air Force Base, which is, for most fallen service members, their first American stop on the final journey home. A cynical person might say that the Pentagon, or the previous Administration, didn’t want the public to be reminded of the true cost of the war. The official response, however, was always that it was to preserve the dignity of the soldiers and the privacy of the family.
McCaffrey’s answer pretty much blew the official answer out of the water, as well as misstated the whole debate.
He repeated the concern for the families’ privacy when a dead loved one comes home, but supported allowing coverage at Dover.
“The key aspect of this was to let the families’ wishes dominate what happens. Primarily, though, the ceremony at Dover, the Army still owns its dead soldiers until they are turned over to the families,” McCaffrey said. “But filming at internment ceremonies across America, that ought to be up to the families.”
All due respect, general, but coverage of internment ceremonies across America was always up to the families. Or at least in this part of America and any other part I’ve heard of.
As a reporter who has covered too many funerals — and yes, one is too many, but far more than that — for local soldiers, airmen and Marines who have died in the line of duty, our presence at the wake, the funeral service, the graveside or anything connected with their loss is always at the discretion of the family.
We know we’re calling them at the worst possible time, and we try to be as respectful and compassionate as possible.
They say they don’t want to talk right now, we say we understand, leave a number if they want to use it later, and say good-bye.
They say they’d prefer we talk to someone else, an uncle, a grandparent or a favorite high school coach rather than a parent or a widow, we say thank you and ask for a phone number.
They say they don’t want us at the services, we don’t go.
They say they don’t mind the cameras outside the church but don’t want them inside, that’s what we do.
McCaffrey’s suggestion, perhaps unintended, is that families need to be protected from the pack of howling jackals that is the news media. But the Pentagon ban at Dover was never about protecting families — can anyone explain how a family could know whether their loved one’s flag-draped casket is or is not in a particular picture? — but keeping from the country a visual image of the true cost of the war as the fallen return to American soil for the last time..
Once that flag-draped coffin arrives home, we might take a picture of it enterring or leaving a chapel as part of the farewell that soldier, sailor, airman or Marine receives. Or a picture of the folded flag being handed to the parent or the spouse, or some other iconic image from the service.
If the family allows us to attend.
If not, we’ll do our best to let the community know something about this person, not just how he or she died (which is all the military releases) but how they lived and how they will be missed.
That will continue, regardless of what happens to the Dover policy, where the fight is really about the cost of war on the macro level.
Because once they get back to Spokane or Coeur d’Alene or Colville or Pullman or any of the communities large and small around the Northwest, we know about the cost on the local, or micro level.