Sunday, November 01, 2009

The persistance of memory: the coffins and the salute

The 2 Political Junkies (Dayvoe in particular) had a post on the President’s traveling to Dover Air Force base to greet the coffins of fallen soldiers and DEA agents coming from Afghanistan. The post primarily covered Liz Cheney’s reaction. She suggested that President Bush had done the same thing “without the cameras”. There is, of course, a photograph of President Obama saluting as a coffin is brought off the plane.

A conservative commenter of that post expressed (in a most sardonic manner) the view that the President was simply using the image of a slain soldier as a campaign tool. Now, I will pause here to say that conservatives have, since the inauguration of President Obama, engaged in the worst kind of political opportunism. They have suddenly become the defenders of Medicare after Reagan predicted it would be the lever to lead us into socialism and after the years of Republicans holding up Medicare as the quintessential example of big government that Democrats are supposed to be so enamored of. And now for a conservative to say it is self-serving and distasteful for President Obama to honor the men and women who have died serving their country on his watch, and to be disrespectful as he says it is a clear sign that some Republicans will not be happy until the United States is a dictatorship.

But I wanted to look at a couple of other issues. First, the President did take reporters, who had cameras, with him. How should we feel about that? Second, it turns out that for the last eighteen years there has been a Pentagon ban on photographing the arrival of fallen soldiers back to the United States. I know the ban has been broken occasionally, but there it was. Now, I guess conservatives are re-writing history and saying Bush did go to some, or even one, of these flights to greet the caskets. I don’t believe that’s true. But we can also point out that the first President Bush must have consented to or at least failed to over turn this ban, that then Clinton and later George W also did not overturn this ban. Given Clinton’s interesting relationship with foreign policy, failure in Somalia, failure to act in Rwanda, some success in Croatia and Kosovo and also in the Middle East, I am not surprised that the consummate politician did not want the American people to see negative images. I am not surprised by George W either.

Only one of the families of the eighteen slain consented to allow photographs of the coffin of their loved one. This is being spun as reflecting decisions made long ago, before the families knew the President would be in attendance (indeed, since as far as I know George W was never in attendance, I don’t believe the families would have been told this was a possibility). But one photograph is all you need, to demonstrate this President is affected by the impact of his decisions or to show this President is a self serving weasel. I think it is impossible to say which, but it is, as far as most of know, something different than what George W did.

Obama is pictured saluting. I remember hearing that President Reagan asked, as his first inauguration parade, whether it was appropriate for a President to salute troops as they passed. Apparently then he was told it was not, that a person not in uniform particularly without a uniform cap, should place their hand on the chest; and that was what Reagan did.

But the NYTimes carried an essay by a former marine, who related a different Reagan story, that the Marine commandant told the President (evidently later) that he could salute anyone he wished. Since then President’s have saluted people at will. The writer did note that Obama’s salute had absolutely correct form.

I am still a bit ambivalent about a President who does not follow the military convention, and chooses to salute. I am a bit ambivalent about a President who has never served who is saluting, and I don’t like the implication that he ought to get a pass for not knowing the rules because he has never served. I think that a President who is a lawyer, whose credentials for his job are partly based on what an educated lawyer he is, ought to know better.

But even for all the shit Obama is getting now for having gone to Dover Air Force base (no doubt partly caused by conservatives own embarrassment that George W never went), I suspect it would have been more if Obama had stood next to soldiers saluting and Obama had merely put his hand on his heart. Sometimes you need to do the corny and incorrect thing.

In all, I am proud that Obama went to Dover Air Force base, and saluted the soldiers who died on his watch. I have come to think our Afghanistan occupation is as futile the invasion and occupation of Iraq was, and the best we can hope for is to leave Afghanistan with some stability, but I think having some symbolic moments along the way is not a bad thing. After all, those soldiers volunteered with the best of intentions, even if the politicians who they worked for did have them.

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