The Bodies Come Home

The president is grieved by U.S. casualties. He also worries they'll cost him votes.

Of the 130,000 U.S. troops, some 80,000 still don't have the boron carbide vest. Last month, protests from members of Congress led an embarrassed Pentagon to place emergency orders with three manufacturers, not only for the body armor but also for armored Humvees and other special equipment to cope with the frequent roadside explosive devices and ambushes. The military says these orders will be filled by the end of the month.

In reading the casualty reports, I have been struck by how many of the wounded lose arms and legs. Ironically, while the new torso armor keeps soldiers alive, they are often left with maimed bodies and onerous futures. We'll be seeing those survivors soon, wearing prosthetic limbs. Let us hope we don't look away.

As a reporter who served in the army in Cold War peacetime and has covered shooting wars as a journalist, I find something disconnected and even creepy about this conflict. I do not question President Bush's sincerity when he lets it be known through friends that he feels God has chosen him to lead this crusade. Nor am I skeptical about his visible emotion when he visited with troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving. I have felt that same emotion while among soldiers who were looking out for me.

What I don't understand is why the soldiers are the only Americans whom the president has asked to make sacrifices. He has reduced taxes, especially on the rich. He has talked about the importance of volunteerism while his minions lobby to cut funds for AmeriCorps, the domestic peace corps. He tells us, in defiance of common sense, that we can go to war without giving up anything.

The soldiers I have known always wanted information about how the people back home were reacting to their war. It's damned lonely in the boondocks far from the familiar, so they ask: Do Americans support us, support our mission? Opinion polls on this war say the public is backing the troops, but, after the Vietnam experience, the soldiers on the ground are never quite sure. They also have suspicions about political game-playing in Washington.

On this subject, Lucian Truscott IV, a West Point alumnus who writes often and acutely about the military, visited Iraq recently and wrote, in a New York Times op-ed piece: "A colonel in Baghdad (who will go nameless here for obvious reasons) told me just after I arrived that senior Army officers feel every order they receive is delivered with next November's election in mind, so there is little doubt at and near the top about who is really being used for what over here." The resentment in the ranks toward the civilian leadership in Baghdad and back in Washington is palpable. Another officer described the two camps, military and civilian, inhabiting the heavily fortified gold-leafed presidential palace inside the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, as 'a divorced couple who won't leave the house.' "

The president has been criticized in editorials and elsewhere for not attending any military funerals. The explanations from White House staff are twofold: (1) If he were to go to one funeral, he would have to go to them all; and/or (2) If he did go to funerals, he'd be accused in the press of grandstanding and staging photo ops. There has been no national ceremony for the dead and, as far as is known, senior administration officials are not attending funerals. Nor is the press being allowed to take pictures of the returning flag-draped coffins as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which houses the country's (and the world's) largest military mortuary. During the Vietnam War, pictures were allowed and appeared regularly in newspapers and on television.

There are those in the political world who believe that the shadow of Vietnam is what the Bush handlers are really afraid of. Attending funerals, these observers opine, could draw attention to the casualty toll and undermine public acceptance of the war. Many politicians and generals still believe intense war coverage had this effect during Vietnam. Others believe it was the nearly nine-year duration of that war, the longest in the nation's history, and the rising feeling among average Americans that a successful conclusion was not possible.

If that's the concern Bush has, he could select another approach. He could go to funerals as he chooses, to honor the dead properly—but do it privately, with security but without the press. That's probably how he should have handled his Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad, to avoid the media bickering that ensued over which reporters were chosen for the trip and other matters of grave national security. If he wished, he could have taken the White House photographer instead and distributed a few pictures to the press afterward.

The president has already employed the no-press route on some occasions. On November 24, at Fort Carson, Colorado, he met privately with the families of 26 soldiers killed in Iraq. We have been told also that he has made phone calls and written to other families who have suffered losses. A Knight Ridder story by Joseph Galloway in August reported that Bush had made a couple of private visits to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

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