U.S soldiers kneel in front of the helmets of fallen soldiers Spc= Donald L. Wheeler and Spc. James Powell on Thursday, Oct.16, 2003, during a memorial ceremony in Tikrit, Iraq.
Five millennia ago, it was the law in Athens to honor those who sacrificed their lives fighting for their country. Pericles’ funeral oration, his immortal tribute to the dead of the Peloponnesian war, did more than pay homage to the fallen. It defined the obligations of citizens living in a democracy, to recognize and to take full measure of the sacrifices offered by the dead. This speech lives today as one of the finest examples of oratory in the tradition of western civilization.
Lincoln embraced this obligation of the living to the dead in the eloquent words that form and frame the Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
President Reagan embodied the tradition when he placed himself among the caskets of the 241 marines killed in Beirut, and gave voice to the nation’s sorrow when the Challenger was lost. For President Clinton, it was his appeal to the American people, in the words of St. Paul, to “let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” in his tribute to the victims of the bombing at Oklahoma City.
While interpreting the meaning of sacrifice in the service of one’s country has been the work of statesmen since Athens was a city-state, President Bush has chosen a different course.
Although he has spoken in general terms of the loss and sacrifice of our brave men and women in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, he has not attended even one burial. His administration has barred still photography and broadcast coverage of our soldiers’ caskets arriving at the Charles C. Carson mortuary in Dover, Delaware. The day that the Chinook helicopter was downed in Iraq, and sixteen soldiers were killed, their loss was never mentioned by the commander-in-chief who sent them into battle.
Why does the president appear to hold the casualties of Iraq War at arm’s length?
It’s easy to impute a political calculation to these decisions, but it is also worth pausing to calculate the cost to the president – and to all of us – of his choice to withdraw from the field of grief.
The White House says that, since the President cannot attend all the funeral services for soldiers killed in Iraq, and there are many, that he would slight most families by appearing at graveside to comfort only one.
But a single appearance by the president, capturing the emotions every American feels, would remind all bereaved families that their fallen men and women were revered as heroes by their countrymen. It would strengthen the moral legitimacy of the president’s leadership, because the commander-in-chief must be seen as understanding the consequences of his decisions, and that not every soldier whom he calls to war will return safely home.
Finally, it would give him a platform to remind the nation that the war on terrorism will command the nation’s blood and treasure for a long time, and to ask our people for their continued support.
Leadership demands that our president pay tribute to the heroism of soldiers in war, and define the meaning of sacrifice for all of us. A plain-spoken president can say a lot and gain a lot by connecting the conduct of his office to this oldest and most eloquent rhetorical tradition.