Those flag-draped coffins

Posted: Apr 30, 2004 12:00 AM

"They are the images of war the Bush Administration doesn't want the American public or anyone to see. But a Web site is showing hundreds of flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Official Bush Administration and Defense Department policy forbids such photographs, saying they are disrespectful of the dead. Critics say the policy hides truth from the public, and they got the photos released under the Freedom of Information Act." So spoke Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News on April 22.
 The word "hundreds" is exaggerated. There have actually been about 126 American combat deaths in April. That very tendency to overstate goes far toward explaining the Pentagon and Bush Administration's embrace of the no pictures policy in the first place.

 It's clear what they're afraid of. "Quite frankly, we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified," John Molino, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense told the Associated Press. They fear that the press will present combat deaths in the most depressing manner possible and that by doing so they will undermine morale on the home front. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) caught the spirit exactly when he compared the current war to Vietnam: "As people began to see the reality of it and see the 55,000 people who were killed coming back in body bags, they became more and more upset by the war. This (the Pentagon's policy) is not about privacy. This is about trying to keep the country from facing the reality of war."

 McDermott seems to hope that pictures of flag-draped coffins will undermine support for the war in Iraq. But he and Rather and the Bush Administration may all be quite wrong about the effect those coffins will have on public opinion.

 As Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic reminds us, the idea that combat deaths undermine domestic support for war is mostly myth. In Somalia, for example, the grisly mutilation of the bodies of American soldiers in Mogadishu did not demoralize the American people. Between 55 and 61 percent (depending upon which poll you consult) favored sending more troops. It was President Clinton's decision -- independent of public opinion -- to cut our losses and quit the country. Even after the Marine barracks were bombed in Lebanon in 1983, most Americans favored sending more troops, not withdrawing, as President Reagan elected to do. And though it is an article of faith among an entire generation that mounting casualties undermined support at home for the war in Vietnam, this is a myth.

 In truth, Americans repeatedly endorsed forceful action in Vietnam. When President Nixon bombed Hanoi and Haiphong, his approval ratings for handling the war went up. At no time did a majority of the country favor withdrawal from Vietnam until the Nixon Administration made withdrawal and "Vietnamization" official policy.

 Polling did show dissatisfaction, however, with Presidents Johnson and Nixon when the public sensed that Americans were not fighting to win but were merely being fed into the swamps by the thousands to fight and die for a stalemate. 

 Which brings us to the coffins at Dover Air Force Base. The Bush Administration is overreaching by claiming that it wishes to forbid photos out of respect for the families of fallen soldiers. By sticking with this policy, they suggest that there is something to hide. There isn't.

 At the same time, some members of the press cover every death in combat as if it represents a defeat for the nation. They suggest that if men are dying, there must be a problem with the policy. And they summon pity instead of respect in their reporting. That is probably what the Pentagon and the families of the dead are most eager to avoid. It is a deeply moving and grieving sight to see coffins lined up and to know that young men have been cut down for our sake. But the proper emotional response is sadness, honor and gratitude -- not pity or despair. Show the photographs -- but salute.