Monday, August 29, 2005

Flag-draped coffins -- full or empty, what's the diff?

Ann Scott Tyson reported in The Washington Post of August 5 that a lawsuit had forced the Pentagon to release more new pictures of flag-draped coffins being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base, under provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The suit was dropped when the Pentagon caved, and released hundreds of photographs of identical boxes covered by identical flags for publication. The original suit had been filed in October 2004 by University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter. (The professor is, in fact, a former CNN correspondent, age 71, now enjoying a comfortable retirement posting as a media egghead.)
http://www.watsoninstitute.org/news_detail.cfm?id=255

"The decision was called a victory for open government by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research group that helped the litigation," writes Tyson. The National Security Archive describes itself as "an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C." (
http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/ Sounds all very intellectual and respectable, I'm sure, but the donor list is revealing: a number of the usual suspects (Ford, Rockefeller, Hewlett, Carnegie, Time, New York Times, Washington Post), joined by such illustrious philanthropists as Mike Farrell, the Streisand Foundation, and George Soros's Open Society Institute.

Can anyone explain exactly what about the sight of identical coffins with identical flags constitutes "information"? When every single mainstream media outfit has nothing, absolutely nothing to report about what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond the numbers of military personnel killed or wounded on any given day, what information is revealed by an image of anonymous coffins which we could not obtain by adding together the anonymous numbers repeated and republished at every opportunity?

Pictures of coffins convey no information -- zero -- about the conduct of the war on terrorism. One of the reasons we can be sure of this is that anti-war protestors often carry fake (but accurate!) coffins when they march, sometimes dozens of them stretching down most of a city block, and the effect is very much the same as the Dover pictures: we think, in the abstract, about numbers of our youth whose lives have been ended prematurely and violently. We confront the reality of numbers. We are shaken by the image. But we reduce the individuals-- their lives, their deeds, their dreams and ambitions-- to symbols. The sight of an airplane-bellyfull of filled coffins and a block-long parade of empty coffins is equally chilling. IT IS TECHNICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE OUTSIDE OBSERVER TO KNOW WHETHER THERE IS ANYONE INSIDE THE BOX OR NOT-- THERE IS NO "INFORMATION" HERE. NONE.

This also has NOTHING whatever to do with "open government." If the government of the United States were not open regarding the human cost of war, our military cemeteries would not be open to the public, where we can read every name on every marker, the place that he or she died, and at what age (now that's information).

Nor would our military hospitals welcome visitors who are not relatives of a patient-- whereas, in fact, people of good will who come to talk to wounded veterans, help them write letters, and deliver care packages of books, snacks, or grooming needs are active and much-appreciated hospital volunteers.

Nor would our military academies celebrate their students with annual gala dinners where decorated, even wounded veterans are welcome to mingle with fresh-faced collegians-- like the young Marine Lance Corporal who came to the Christmas ball in Houston, where we could all see him dance with one arm around his girlfriend and the other hanging limply at his side, and the shrapnel wounds around his head still visible as he complied with the mandatory removal of his cover. Nobody told him to stay away and not break the illusion. And the 180 service academy students of the Houston area every year bring with them a thousand family members. Likewise, those 140,000 troops in Iraq represent at least a million people whose hearts are in their mouths with every news report. You can't hide this, and nobody's trying to. Just because Professor Begleiter is short on information doesn't mean the rest of the country is so ill-informed. Nor will any of us, including the professor, be better informed for having seen hundreds of identical coffins draped with identical flags.

I tried to explain this on talk radio once. I figured a radio host in Toronto was not likely to have too many parents of American military in his listening audience, as he opined effusively about the outrage of the Pentagon wishing to deny public viewing of the Dover coffin delivery. My call was put through to him, and as a Marine mom I tried to provide the perspective of one with a special interest in the respectful treatment of military casualties. It was, and remains, my opinion that the desire to see and photograph these massed coffins is ghoulish-- that there could be nothing more dehumanizing or anonymous or sanitized than identical boxes of the dead.

My host took precisely the opposite view: that seeing all those coffins somehow made the humanity of the dead more obvious. (Someone 'splain that to me...) He launched into a diatribe to this effect and cut me off without any opportunity to respond. When I turned up the volume on the radio he was mocking me by name, as if I were some kind of mindless sentimentalist. I burst into tears, turned the radio off, and have never listened to this man again. It's too bad-- on the whole he's fairly sane, as these people go (for Canada, anyway). But I would never have imagined that someone speaking from my perspective could be so publicly abused. [Let's not let him off the hook-- his name is Bill Carroll, and he works for CFRB 1010 in Toronto.]

We have recently learned of another outrage involving the mock coffin, being enacted on the street in front of Walter Reed Hospital by a mob called "Code Pink"-- some sort of deeply loopy female anti-war organization (anti-everything-- read their website
http://www.codepink4peace.org/).j Actually, "deeply loopy" doesn't cover it. We now know they are vicious, callous vipers who parade themselves before our wounded soldiers and their families, with the clear message that their sacrifices have been worthless-- that they are stupid suckers who have suffered for nothing. The soldiers, of course, are not stupid, which is why they know that the CodePinkies are ignorant and deranged. But their wounds are salted and riven deeper to think that any of their fellow-citizens hold them in such contempt, and they must grieve to wonder just how widespread this contempt may be.

The carriers of empty symbol coffins, and the ghouls who compel the Pentagon's assistance in satiating their prurient desire to gape at boxes of nameless dead people, are brethren of the same tribe. They possess a sublime arrogance by which they deem themselves the only people capable of perceiving the reality of our war dead-- the rest of us are too dense, we cannot conceive of anything not graphically illustrated, we cannot do the math on the cost of war without a red-white-and-blue workbook sheet and a big yellow pencil to cross out the markers one by one. It is the classic pose of the left which makes itself evident again and again every day: we are stupid; they are not.

Of course, it isn't about math. It's about families-- hundreds of people gathered around one single coffin, with a photograph of a real human being on top of it as he is sung to sleep by a church choir or offered Kaddish by his rabbi; remembered by her friends; mirrored in his children. That is real information, and it is not the property of strangers.

So to those who see in images of our fallen heroes "information" or parade props, I have a very few words: go to hell.

If the information you seek is a number-- the answer to the question "how many have died?"-- you can find it elsewhere. In fact, you can hardly escape it. If you sincerely want to illustrate the human cost of war, you would do better to mount a show of pictures of our soldiers' ravaged corpses, limbs broken, bloodied bandages—that at least is a picture of real human life. Deeply humane war photographers like Matthew Brady began this tradition, where pictures tell about truth. But our modern journalist/statisticians haven’t the guts to tell that story, the one that makes the dead man an identifiable human being, an individual who made a conscious choice to put himself in the enemy's gunsites. The desire to see massed identical coffins, and to have them be seen, is sick and hateful. So take your abacus, and go to hell.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Of course this is about "open government". The point is not the "information" of whether there is someone inside the coffins. The point is that the government generated a record (for whatever purpose) when it took those pictures and has been trying to keep that record secret for clearly political, rather than legitimate national security reasons.

CSB said...

The "record" is the number of deaths-- it does not change, and is not kept secret just because it is revealed in numerals rather than photographs. The public does not need photographs to know the facts, and the families of the dead do not like people gawking at their kids' coffins when their identities cannot be appreciated. As far as I'm concerned, the families' wishes are the deciding factor.