The debate over whether the media should have access to our war dead — the “ramp ceremonies” that solemnly accompany the bodies of our soldiers and Marines onto cargo planes for home from the battlefield, the flag draped coffins at Dover Air Force base when they arrive — was lost years ago by journalists and others who believed the Bush Administration had been scrubbing the war of its brutality in order to keep a jittery American public in line behind its controversial policies.
But as these writers at The Los Angeles Times suggest in a poignant report yesterday about continued media restrictions in the context of an increase in American deaths in Afghanistan, not only has the public been prevented by the state from appreciating, even engaging in from a distance, an ancient communal ritual, a mourning of these individuals through any respectful documentation of their sacrifice, the very news of their deaths has been eerily diminished in the last year:
For reporters hitching rides on military aircraft in Afghanistan, the ceremonies are an unavoidable feature of airfield landscapes. In addition to the Marine and the Afghan interpreter, four U.S. troops and a Polish soldier were killed on Friday and Saturday alone. The ramp ceremony at Bastion, in Helmand province, was the second there in two days, after the deaths of two Navy corpsmen in an insurgent attack Wednesday.
The Pentagon ban on is haphazardly enforced and poorly understood, even by many public affairs officers.
On Saturday, one such officer escorted Times journalists to cover and photograph the ramp ceremony in Kandahar for five U.S. service members. On the way, she announced that no photographs could be taken of the flag-draped coffins. Then, after conferring with another public affairs officer who had just read the regulations, she said no journalists would be allowed at all.
The reporters watched the ceremony from behind a fence. Later, the officer apologized and said the journalists should have been allowed to attend the ceremony, as long as they agreed to not write about it or take photographs.
The ceremonies are emotional, all the more so this spring as casualty rates have soared amid a Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan. At least 55 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan this year, according to icasualites.org, an independent website that tracks casualties in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts. At the current pace, U.S. deaths in Afghanistan in 2008 will approach last year’s total of 117, by far the deadliest year since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
As Rick Scavetta, an Army veteran who happened to be a public affairs officer Afghanistan during the current conflict told me when he read the piece:
“This is the truth about war casualties in Afghanistan. This was our reality, ramp ceremonies almost every day. Warrior cultures always hold those killed in battle in high regard. Political motives now force American troops from doing so publicly. We should honor their sacrifice, not hide it.”