The following is a post by Michael Sledge, author of Soldier Dead.
Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the ban on media presence at the return of “transfer cases” containing the remains of US service personnel who have died overseas would be lifted. I offer my sincere appreciation for this proposed change in policy.
In the case of allowing media presence at the repatriation of our Soldier Dead, it all boils down to the question: “To whom do the dead belong?”
After studying the proposal (and the objections of groups such as Military Families United), I can’t help but be struck by how much misinformation exists about the return of our Soldier Dead.
First, “coffins” (as generally reported) are not coming back to the US. A coffin infers that the deceased is already identified and prepared for burial. Rather, the “transfer cases” containing the remains are nothing more than big ice chests.
Second, once the as yet not officially identified remains are received at Dover, they go through a meticulous identification process in a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of the rest of the world. Military deaths are often a messy affair, and dedicated men and women work diligently to assure that each and every body part is associated with the appropriate service person who has given his or her life.
After the remains are officially identified – Dr. Craig Mallak, Chief Medical Examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has stated that remains only have a tentative identification when they arrive at Dover – they are prepared for burial, which includes a full military dress uniform and the casket of the family’s choice.
At the time of their arrival in the U.S., these fallen soldiers are the country’s unnamed representatives who carry the nation’s sword and shield. As such, they belong to the country as a whole, not just to a particular family.Therefore, to say that we leave the decision to the family about whether or not to have media present at the return of the dead gives a decision to a group that does not yet have an official claim on the dead.Certainly, it doesn’t take much prescience to understand that, if we have a single death in Afghanistan and a day later a plane shows up carrying these remains, it would be possible to say with confidence that a certain transfer case does, indeed, carry the remains of someone whose identity is clearly known.
And, if this fallen soldier’s family wants privacy from the beginning to the end, then there could be a potential conflict in satisfying this request because pictures of the flag-draped transfer case would be made in which the occupant was, ostensibly, known.
This leads to the question to whom do the dead belong?
I assert that the dead belong to both the family and to those they serve. This means that, until such dead receive formal identification and are officially handed over to the Next of Kin, they belong to each and every citizen of the United States, for it is on our behalf that they gave their lives.
As such, there will be those of us who agree that these men and women died for a worthy cause, and there will be those of us who disagree. Undoubtedly, some of those who disagree may attempt to use the formal recognition of the receipt of our dead to convey their disagreement. And, undoubtedly, there will be those who agree who will, in their own way, use the receipt of our dead to support their position.
Dissension and the employment of images of our war dead for one reason or another is inevitable, and should be looked upon as a peculiar feature of our process for displaying and resolving conflict. It is part of our heritage and, as such, should not be squelched.
In conclusion, there is no pleasing everyone, but I would dare say that, while some families may feel that they have lost control of how their loved ones are portrayed; many more families will be comforted by the embrace of millions who, heretofore, have been banned from a chance to both offer and receive comfort.
Let the dead belong to all Americans Secretary Gates.
You can read more about Michael Sledge’s work here.
Photo credits: top: National Archives, bottom: Picture taken by Michael Sledge at the U.S. Army Morgue in Baghdad, Iraq