Entry from April 6, 2009

Today’s Washington Post gives an account of the arrival of the first of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — Air Force Staff Sergeant Phillip Myers of Hopewell, Virginia, killed by an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan — since the Obama administration’s lifting of the ban on the media’s photographing such arrivals. I would have expected it to be yet another if somewhat understated bit of media triumphalism — a celebration of the demolition of one more barrier to the media’s freedom to do as it pleases at whatever cost to public decorum or private sensitivities. At the least, I would have expected to see some reference of the sort that appeared in The New York Times blog, “The Lede” to how the ban had been lifted in response to the charges of “critics” who “point to the First Amendment and have accused the government of trying to keep the public in the dark about the human toll of war.”

The Post, however, gives all its attention to the training of the Army’s Old Guard, based at Ft. Myer, Virginia, who weren’t even there on this occasion. Sergeant Myers had an Air Force detail, but since most of the returning dead are from the Army, the task of escorting them once they arrive at Dover — what’s called the “dignified transfer” — will usually fall to the Old Guard. “To make it into the Old Guard,” writes Christian Davenport of the Post, “they’ve already survived a sort of basic training in which, instead of climbing walls and crawling under barbed wire” — actually, in addition to these things —

they learn to stand as still as a marble column and as stolidly as a beefeater. Their three-week orientation training ends with a particularly grueling task: They have to stand at attention a full 90 minutes. That’s the length of a feature film without so much as a sigh or smirk. It can be difficult, given that the instructors do everything they can to break the soldiers’ concentration. They tell dirty jokes. They dance. They play peekaboo behind their berets and make funny faces. They sing ridiculous songs: Barry Manilow in falsetto, “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin. Having survived the Aladdin test, Pvt. Kyle Brower, 18 years old and just a few months removed from civilian life, was able to stand still and stare into the middle distance during his first dignified transfer last week. He was able to carry the coffin while remaining, as the soldiers call it, “locked up” — both physically and emotionally. If his thoughts wandered to the soldier inside, how he or she died, he was able to snap back.

The article seems oddly incurious about why things are done this way, perhaps regarding it as just one of the military’s unfathomable customs to be reported on with ironic bemusement. There is a reference to the reported belief of the soldiers themselves that “whether the media is there doesn’t matter,” since “what matters is that they honor the fallen by preserving the solemnity of the occasion with their quiet precision. The article also quotes Sgt. James Rhett of the Old Guard as saying that “They’re a fallen soldier, and they deserve the highest respect and honor we can give” — which presumably has something to do with being “locked up.”

And yet there is not so much as a glance given to the irony of the fact that the occasion for this highly respectful reporting about the military’s ways of showing respect for the dead is the unlocking of the media, and the new access of freedom they themselves may now enjoy to be as disrespectful as they like. If it is an admirable — or at least understandable — addition of dignity to an act that the media themselves seem to agree is one fraught with “solemnity” and “honor” to put the tightest of lids on the emotions of the living escorts, why should not the media’s own emotionalism on the same occasion not be subject to a demand for some similarly respectful continence?

For let there be no pretense that the photography of returning coffins has no emotional kick to it. That’s really what The New York Times means when it refers to “the human toll of war,” since the dry facts of the casualty figures have always been publicly available. Their concern to show returning coffins is the same as it was in making a media heroine out of Cindy Sheehan — that is, simply to add an emotional dimension, with its implicit mockery of the unemotional respect shown by the comrades of the fallen, to its reporting of the war as an inevitably political commentary it. The “human toll of war” thus separated from the political, military and honorable context in which it has been incurred, will always appear to be too high. Not for the first time, I find myself feeling tremendous sympathy for the idea that, when it comes to reporting on matters of national security, it would do the media a world of good to be locked up for a while.


Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts