Even by Washington standards, there's something particularly feckless about the change in media coverage rules for the homecoming of our fallen troops.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the press will be allowed to cover the return of their remains to Dover AFB, Delaware, but only on a case-by-case basis. Before being allowed to report (and photograph) the arrival of those flag-draped coffins, media outlets must gain permission from the families of slain personnel.
Think about that one for a moment, and let it sink in while we review the "mechanics" of this decision.
Mr. Gates made his choice after President Obama ordered a policy review. After consulting with the Army (which has suffered the largest number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan), Gates elected to modify coverage guidelines. The change reverses a policy that had existed since the first Gulf War, when President George H.W. Bush banned the press from photographing return ceremonies at Dover.
The Delaware base is the first stop on American soil for military personnel killed in the line of duty. It is home for many of the cargo aircraft that transport the bodies of fallen troops, and the site of the military's largest mortuary.
Pressure to end the long-standing coverage ban has been building for some time. Anti-war activists and journalists have been clamoring for the "right" to cover homecoming ceremonies at Dover for years.
Members of Congress also got involved; earlier this year, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey approached the administration about changing the rules. Sensing a shift in the political winds, Mr. Gates decided it was time to change the coverage policy.
But Blackfive raises the same question we have, namely, who speaks for the soldiers? While veterans and Gold Star families who oppose the war generally support the new rules, no one claims those groups represent a majority of military, or the families of war dead. In fact, many in latter groups have voiced disappointment--even anger--over the change in coverage guidelines.
And rightfully so. By shifting permission from the Pentagon to the families, Mr. Gates has only compounded their agony. Facing the most difficult moment of their lives, the survivors must now deal with an intrusive media, anxious to photograph the return of their family members.
Supporters claim that media coverage at Dover reminds all Americans of the sacrifice of our war dead. But that's something of a red herring; fact is, the press has provided extensive coverage of our fallen heroes, usually in conjunction with their final homecoming.
The area where I live is home to one of the nation's largest military communities. Over the past seven years, scores of personnel from this region have made the ultimate sacrifice and returned home in those familiar, silver coffins. But I can't think of a single case where media representatives weren't allowed to interview family or friends outside the funeral home or church, or cover the burial service--from a respectful distance at the cemetery.
That's why the previous policy made eminent sense. It allowed for a private, reverential return, without the prying eye of the media. Reporters who were interested in telling the stories of our fallen troops--as opposed to making a political statement--had to do more than simply stand on the ramp at Dover. Those who made the sad journey discovered exceptional young men (and women) whose short lives were defined by valor and service.
That should be the real legacy of our war dead--not some fleeting image from Dover AFB, aimed at advancing a certain point-of-view. Secretary Gates should learn to respect the wishes of most military families and the majority of those who have served in the War on Terror. As the Pentagon's most powerful official, Dr. Gates has the obligation to disagree with his boss--when the situation warrants--and tell the media "no."
This is one of those times.
Similar thoughts, eloquently expressed, from McQ, another blogger at Blackfive.