June 16, 2006

Keeping Hidden the Human Cost of War

Coffins at Dover Air Force Base
Wednesday was Flag Day in the United States, a holiday that celebrates one of the most prevalent, popular and important symbols of our nation. To mark the occasion, National Public Radio broadcast a story about the dozen or more states that currently mark the burial of service people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying the flag at half mast.

Personally, I am astonished that so few states perform this act of memoriam, even on a limited basis, but apparently, lowering the flag to half staff to acknowledge war dead is actually fraught with controversy.

On the one hand, there are those who seem to legitimately believe that states do not have authority to lower the national banner on their own (like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom) but then there are also others who have divergent reasons. The NPR story cited one veteran who felt that flying the flag at half mast was both unfair and unnecessary because it hadn’t been done for soldiers killed in previous wars, and because we already honor members of the armed forces on Memorial Day and on Veterans Day. The NPR story also stated that there are those who oppose lowering the flag because they see it as a protest against the war. (Although no one in the NPR story who represented that view was quoted.)

The Flag Code, as I understand it, allows for a fair amount of flexibility in flying the Stars and Stripes at half staff, but it is open to interpretation, and if a governor or mayor or similar figure honestly believes that he or she doesn’t have authority to lower the flag, I suppose that’s at least bureaucratically defensible, if potentially not morally. Claiming however, that individual acknowledgement of fallen soldiers is unnecessary, unfair, or political however, strikes me as cowardly and disingenuous.

The claim that it’s unfair to fallen veterans of previous wars to fly the flag at half mast in honor of individual burials is a weak argument, and for most people, probably obviously so. Just ask any woman if it’s unfair to women who died before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution that she has the vote, and if she thinks she should give up that right because women didn’t have it in the past. Or ask a black man if he thinks he should return to slave status because his ancestors lived and died prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

As I said: weak.

Further, the idea that we should limit our observance of the sacrifices made by our service men and women to Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and – oh, what the heck – Independence Day, strikes me as both unpatriotic and crass. Considering how much we really do owe the men and women in the uniforms of our armed forces, and considering how much they give up to serve, and considering also how little they get back and how much they lose in many cases, this position is pretty hard to support.

Might these two weak positions then, be masking something else?

My contention is that they are proxies – weak proxies, but proxies – for opposition to using the flag to call attention to the cost of the War in Iraq. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been “luxury wars,” barely impinging on the lives of ordinary Americans unless they happen to be watching the news or have a family member in the service. There is no rationing, there is no hardship (the climb in gas prices is relatively recent and tied to Iraq only indirectly, if at all), and there is no draft. And for these reasons, this ill-advised war of choice has been allowed to continue as it has. There is little pressure on our leadership to withdraw our troops (leaving aside the geopolitical implications thereof, for now) that they cannot ignore.

Imagine however, if we actually could see photographs of the flag-draped caskets containing the mortal remains of the young men and young women who have died in combat. (The Bush Administration has specifically prohibited the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases.) Imagine if, every time one of those men and women were buried, the flag was lowered to half mast. Might we not at least notice the blood we are spending? Might we not be forced to consider what we’re letting our elected officials do?

Yesterday, we passed the grim milestone of 2,500 Americans dead in Iraq, but even that number – small as it may be relative to lives lost in wars like Vietnam – is just a number. It’s an abstract concept that doesn’t really register with people, even though an equivalent loss on my own personal level would be if everyone in my high school class, as well the five that followed mine, were killed.

Because (to borrow a phrase) a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic, what is needed to appreciate the true cost of war, unfortunately, is personalized loss. Lowering the flag to half mast when a soldier is killed meets that criterion, as do photographs of coffins swathed in Old Glory, and that is why those who have supported the War in Iraq oppose both.

While the House of Representatives today passed a resolution along party lines wrapping the Iraq conflict into the so-called “War on Terror” and rejecting a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal, pro-war congressmen postured for the cameras. Representative John Murtha, however, got it right, noting that it’s “easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say, 'I'm going to stay the course,’” adding "That's why I get so upset when they stand here sanctimoniously and say we're fighting this thing. It's the troops that are doing the fighting."

Which leads me to what I believe are the questions we should be asking: Would this war of choice be allowed to continue if the human cost were more visible? And if it’s necessary to hide and depersonalize the life lost for this “cause,” can this cause truly be said to be worthy? Is remembering, honoring and keeping track of those who have been killed following the orders of people who represent us "political"?

I think the answer to all of the above is “no.”


GalfromCal said...

I would also add another question. Do the troops support a national press that is sensored?
What have Vets been recognized for? They fight for freedom and to keep us free. Yet the FCC allows media companies to control what we see, and take control of our internet.

All of which are not Freedom!


Blog looks good, but black back ground I would not use. That is personal choice however, and we all have opinions don't we.

Also, I lived in St Louis for 7yrs prior to 1992, but you were probably still in grade school. Everyone seems to be younger than me now a days. (wha wha wha) ;-)

Buck said...

Excellent post... good job!