I have a good friend, a retired general officer, who served in the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq and a year or so afterward. When I saw him at a reunion a year ago, he told me about duty at Dover in the course of our conversation. By that he meant that he and other generals at the Pentagon volunteered to go to Dover when aircraft carrying our dead warriors arrived and render them the honor they deserved. They did it on a rotating basis and in his opinion, it was the single highest honor they were afforded – the opportunity to pay their respects and render proper honors to those who had fallen.
I remember him having to pause a few times in his retelling, to sort of gather himself emotionally, and even then there was a bit of a crack in his voice or a glint of tear in his eye. An old Vietnam veteran, he knew personally how important this was to the military community. He also remembered how different it was in that distant war of his youth. That's why it was so vitally important to him that it be done right this time.
What struck me in his telling of his role in honoring our military dead was how intimate the act seemed. Everyone, without prompting, without complaining, without even the slightest hesitation, did all they could to ensure the proper respect, solemnity and care was given the remains of their brothers and sisters who had fallen in combat. Out of sight of anyone other than those on the ramp with them, they rendered the proper honors in a heartfelt way and with a precision meant to signify that this was a military hero for whom they were caring. It was the act of a loving and caring community, a family going through the grieving rituals which are particular to them.
What the military does at Dover isn't something just prescribed by some regulation or manual. It is something done because it is the right and honorable thing to do. It's is the last private and intimate act the military community as a whole renders its lost family member before it turns them over to the public at large. It is, in reality, the final goodbye, a ceremonial relinquishment of their fallen comrade to the nation at large. From that point onward, the affair is public - as public as the family and news media wants to make it.
And that's what has me puzzled about this media demand to intrude on these intense and intimately private moments at Dover. The argument is that filming and photographing the flag covered transfer cases as they arrive in Dover will drive home the real cost of war, and Americans have a right to know that. Of course there are plenty of pictures which are now in the public domain, shot and smuggled out of Dover which will make that point, if necessary. There's really not any necessity to have more of what will look precisely like the photos already in existence. They make the point about the cost of war as well as any new pictures might.
The cost of war can be made in many other ways as well. Pretending that photographs of arriving flag-draped transfer cases is the only real way to do so is simply laughable and demonstrates a dearth of imagination.
Instead, this seems this is more about the media than the cost of war. "The public's right to know" is thrown around like an amendment to the Constitution which should open all doors to their intrusive snooping, when in fact, such a "right" is one made up by the media for the media. The public knows the cost of war – many families have been touched by it throughout the history of our country. It doesn't require the media breaking in on private ceremonies to understand that. It is the public that bears the cost of war and always has.
No, this is about nothing more than media arrogance. It's a demand to be where they want to be whether wanted or not. It's a voyeuristic need to intrude upon and see what they been denied simply because it has been denied. Recording arriving dead at Dover won't illustrate the cost of war any better than it's been illustrated to date. But it will destroy the intimacy and privacy of our final goodbye.
For that reason, I pray that Secretary Gates and President Obama will continue the ban on the media at Dover. All families, to include the military family, need the room and time to grieve and say goodbye in their own special way to those they've lost.
Dover is ours.