America can handle the coffins

Last week, President Obama said he was weighing whether to lift the 18-year ban on photo and video coverage at Dover Air Force Base, the Delaware facility where the bodies of America’s military dead are received back into the United States.

It is a step the new president ought to take -- not only because the American people deserve the fullest and most complete accounting possible of the policies pursued in their name, but because the prohibition on the news media flows from a profound misapprehension on the part of the government.

The ban was imposed during the Persian Gulf War by President George H.W. Bush, who -- along with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney -- became convinced that if Americans saw photos and television footage of the caskets of dead servicemen and servicewomen being unloaded at Dover, it would undermine support for the war. In part, this was a reflection of the aversion to openness and the antipathy toward the media that seem imprinted on the Bush/Cheney DNA.

In larger measure, though, it was a distortion of one of the so-called lessons of Vietnam. Yes, there’s a line of conventional wisdom that says media coverage of the war in Southeast Asia, particularly television, fatally undercut public support for the war. According to that version of events, nightly network news footage of coffins rolling down conveyor belts from Air Force planes at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii pushed popular approval of the war into the basement.


That perception was, in fact, a distortion of the military’s own definitive appraisal of the Vietnam War debacle, which was published in 1972 in a small book called “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War” by Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., then a professor at the Army War College. Summers, an up-from-the-ranks officer who had commanded troops in Vietnam and had been on the last helicopter to leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, was a prototype of the warrior/intellectual who has come to dominate much of our military’s strategic thinking in the years since then.

He undertook an examination of what had gone wrong in Southeast Asia by applying the rigorous, now classic standards of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz to America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Summers concluded that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had forfeited public support not because they had allowed the media access to the battlefield, but because the American people saw their sons dying in a conflict with no clear goals or exit strategy. His work was immensely influential within the armed services and is the genesis of the so-called Powell doctrine, which holds that when America decides to act militarily, it should deploy overwhelming force in the service of clear and politically explicable goals.

Summers made it clear that Americans did not lose faith in the Vietnam War because they abhor sacrifice, but because they were unwilling to suffer enormous losses in the service of a mistake.

Later, President George W. Bush’s administration would graft onto the initial misperception a notion that the families of fallen soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and women are entitled to privacy in their grief. Certainly, their loss is a particular and intimate one, but it also is a loss that belongs to the nation as a whole and in whose consequences the entire American polity needs to share. It is possible to protect the privacy of individual family members while also allowing the nation to witness the sacrifices made in its name.


Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq began, more than 5,000 flag-draped coffins have arrived at Dover to be greeted only by a military chaplain and an eight-member military honor guard. That won’t do; the nation, through the witness of a respectful media, needs to share in this accounting.

To continue to pretend otherwise infantilizes the American people. Summers, who was a career Army officer first, last and always and the furthest thing from sentimental, utterly rejected such an approach.

As he told an audience in Berkeley in 1996, “I think the American public has learned the lessons of the Vietnam War fairly well. ... And all of the comments made about how we can’t stand casualties [are] baloney. If the American people are convinced of the worth of what we’re doing, they will spend, as we did in World War II, a million casualties in pursuing it. There is nothing wrong with the backbone of the American character.”

That’s advice President Obama should heed.