Saturday, April 7, 2007
Death Be Not Proud
Two stories I ran across really bring home the true cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first one quite literally. According to this AP story, a law quietly took effect this past January that changed the way in which our dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are being returned home to their families. The military is now required to fly the flag-draped caskets on military or military-contracted aircraft, to regional airports as close as possible to the family. Once there, the caskets must be removed from the plane by a military honor guard.
Before the law took effect, the caskets were flown by standard commercial jet, often unloaded from the plane by baggage handlers using forklifts, and delivered to the family in cargo area warehouses. The military claimed they were simply trying to expedite the delivery as much as possible. But when you compare the costs -- $1.2 million for all of last year by commercial flights versus $11 million for a six month contract with a charter company -- it's easy to be skeptical.
Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the National Guard Bureau held its first ever Army Guard honor guard competition. I'll quote the article's description of the competition's "events", because a summary doesn't quite do it justice:
Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms; they wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies.
Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran - from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.
The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice - once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags. They also took a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs.
Now the whole thing seems a bit over the top to me, especially the last bit about running an obstacle course in dress blues while carrying a 200 lb. casket. Almost like a Monty Python skit. But I'm not going for a cheap laugh here. Because this is what comes at the end of article:
Oregon's Turner praised the competition and also summed up what it meant to win and to a veteran of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. ... Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."
Now I'm not judging the way the military honors its dead. In fact, I think there's something moving and important about it. But this seems to me to be representative of the triumph in certain circles of form over function. Or worse yet, of formulas over reality. Because the truth is, it's cynical to talk about supporting our troops and at the same time treat the fallen like cargo. Or worse yet, to talk about honoring the dead and at the same time factor even one unnecessary military funeral into the political calculus of the war's endgame.
And that's what this administration is doing.