The Dover test

November 05, 2003

HERE'S A MODEST PR proposal for President Bush:

Lift your ban on television and press coverage of the arrival of soldiers' caskets at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Then, go on out there yourself next time a flight arrives to pay your respects.

This administration has carried manipulation of word and image to new extremes; some of it has been ingenious, but some pushes the bounds of decency. The blackout on the return of soldiers' remains, so as not to disturb the contentment of ordinary Americans, is unconscionable.

Yes - the Pentagon will point out that this policy was enunciated in 1991 (by the first President Bush) and that it's all about respecting the dignity of the dead. The fact is, though, that the policy was largely ignored until last spring, when the Pentagon felt the urgent need to restate it.

The dignity question is insultingly off-base. A coffin draped with a flag, an honor guard, slow-stepping pallbearers - where, in all this, is dignity defiled?

Slipping dead soldiers' remains into the country under cover of a press ban - that, in fact, is the real insult to their memory. That's the way Russia brings its dead soldiers back from Chechnya.

Americans are not so squeamish that they can't face the reality of wartime death - if it's a war they support. Gen. Hugh Shelton, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked in 1999 about the "Dover test" for any military action. If caskets are unloaded in Delaware and public support doesn't flag, he said, then it's a fight that can be carried forward. Otherwise, forget it. This administration, though, ducked the test entirely. It evidently lacks confidence - either in its own policies or in the steadfastness of the American people.

And, complementing the White House decision to block images of the honored dead from being disseminated throughout the country, so too has President Bush himself kept away from scenes of grief. He has spent most of his travel time since the war began attending fund-raisers for his re-election campaign - with the exception of his now lamentable flight-suited excursion out to the aircraft carrier last spring.

Some presidential exposure to the more sobering side of war is in order - though he ought to leave the banners behind. The president who taunted, "Bring 'em on," last summer, who crowed in October that the more Americans are attacked in Iraq, the more it's a sign of American success, might do well to face up to the consequences.

President Bill Clinton went to Andrews Air Force Base to greet the remains of those killed in the terrorist bombing in Nairobi, Kenya; President Ronald Reagan went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for the return of Marines killed in Beirut; President Jimmy Carter met those who died in the failed Iranian hostage-rescue attempt in 1980. These were men who did not flinch from the appropriate and decent gesture.

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