Monday, April 6, 2009

How we honor the fallen

As some of you may know, one of my additional duties at Dover Air Force Base is that of an Honor Guardsman. My participation as a member of the Honor Guard has been limited to a handful of ceremonies, mostly that of retirements and changes-of-command. I look forward to each time I get to put on my ceremonials and taps, beast (i.e.: hard slap) my inoperative M-1 rifle in unison as we present arms for the national anthem, and stand motionless for as long as the ceremony lasts. I've come to appreciate those who can sing the national anthem with efficiency and clarity, and I get annoyed when a singer tries to "soul it up," and add notes to an already inspiring song. When I am in those ceremonials, I know that I am presenting myself as the image of the United States Air Force in particular, and the Armed Forces in general.

When I was in training for the Honor Guard, I participated in one our most solemn duties: the reception and transfer of the flag-draped transfer cases of our fallen troops. As a trainee, I hadn't yet learned the commands and procedures for carrying the cases from the aircraft to the lift and finally to be loaded in the mortuary's van, so I, along with my fellow trainees, were positioned on the aircraft to deliver our slow, simultaneous, three-second salutes.

We watched as four cases were deplaned, one at a time. As we saluted time and again, the lack of media coverage became more and more apparent to me. I understood why the ban on the media was in place -- why subject these images to ridicule and disrespect? But not only were there no cameras in place, but family members were not allowed on the flight line as these cases were transferred. So, I kept asking myself, for whom are we doing this?

I asked that question to my instructor later on. He said that we were doing that so that the fallen would know that we were treating their remains with respect. I didn't really think much of that answer, because pretending to know what the dead find respectful is presumptuous at best. In addition, don't we all take an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?" Doesn't that Constitution include the protection of a free press?

Let me be clear. I am a very liberal person. I believe in the free press and am against censorship. I believe that gays should be allowed to marry and should not be afraid to serve openly in our military. I believe in civil liberties and the freedom to criticize our elected officials. These are the main reasons I enlisted, and why I feel so strongly about preserving the Constitution. And it pains me to no end when the images of these ceremonies are politicized on both sides. I understand, even sympathize with those on the right who wanted to keep the media ban in place, because I get disgusted by the arguments from anti-war protesters on the left. The disgust does not come from any difference in political ideology, but from a very clear disconnect between the politics of war and the simple humanity of a fallen troop.

It's easy to find fault with right-wing partisans who hide behind those of us in uniform, lest anti-war protesters be validated be validated by the publication of the images that display the horrible price that an unjust war asks for. But some left-wing partisans have no better arguments. Those who say that these images should be published to show the price we pay may have a legitimate argument, but their argument is not about the ceremony, but about their own political agenda. It's no longer about the sacrifice that an American has made, but about sticking it to Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld. The outrage over our invasion in Iraq has clouded the judgments of those on the left so much so that they feel more strongly against Paul Wolfowitz than they feel sympathy for parents who have just lost their child.

But the publication of these images is necessary if we are to honor the sacrifice that these men and women have made. We bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution when we are not afraid to publish how far we are willing to sacrifice for that document and its ideals; however, we need to balance out the public's need for information with the family's need for privacy, which is why I am relieved about the Obama Administration's and Secretary Gates' decision to lift the ban on media coverage with the provision of family approval.

Ceremonies are performances, some more solemn than others. It may seem callous or dismissive to refer to a burial as a performance and an Honor Guardsman as an actor, so we have euphemisms. Instead of "staying in character," we say we "maintain our military bearing." Instead of "choreography" or "blocking," we say "movement execution." Instead of "beats," we have "counts." Instead of "rehearsal," we say "drill." But every performance needs an audience; without an audience, the performance becomes almost worthless. Let us show how we honor the fallen, and let us always remember that no matter how you feel about the war or our government, that no matter whose body is in that transfer case or coffin, that body held the life of an American son or daughter. For these solemn moments, let the outrage take a breather and think not about partisanship, but about our children, our siblings, our spouses, and our parents. Let us be thankful for the families we still have, because a family in Dover or Arlington has just become smaller.

1 comment:

jerseygirl77 said...

Thanks for a great post, Omar.