Bush Ignores Soldiers' Burials
On Monday and Tuesday, amid the suicide bombing carnage that left at least 34 Iraqis dead, three more U.S. servicemen were killed in combat in Iraq. In the coming days their bodies will be boxed up and sent home for burial. While en route, the coffins will be deliberately shielded from view, lest the media capture on film the dark image of this ultimate sacrifice. It is almost certain, as well, that like all of the hundreds of U.S. troops killed in this war to date, these dead soldiers will be interred or memorialized without the solemn presence of the President of the United States.
Increasingly, this proclivity on the part of President Bush to avoid the normal duty of a commander-in-chief to honor dead soldiers is causing rising irritation among some veterans and their families who have noticed what appears to be a historically anomalous slight.
"This country has a lot of history where commanders visit wounded soldiers and commanders talked to families of deceased soldiers and commanders attend funerals. It's just one of these understood traditions," says Seth Pollack, an 8-year veteran who served in the First Armored Division in both the first Gulf War and the Bosnia operation. "At the company level, the division level ... the general tradition is to honor the soldier, and the way you honor these soldiers is to have high-ranking officials attend the funeral. For the President not to have attended any is simply disrespectful."
Repeated questions on the matter posed to the White House over the past week earned only a series of "We'll call you back" and "Let me get back to you on that" comments from press officer Jimmy Orr.
Soldiers in the field, say veterans who have been there, have a lot more on their mind than whether or not the President has been photographed with a flag-draped coffin. But for those vets' rights activists who have not only noticed but begun to demand answers from the Bush Administration, the President lost the benefit of their doubt by his actions over the past six months. "I was really shocked that the president wouldn't attend a funeral for a soldier he sent to die," said Pollack, who is board president of Veterans for Common Sense. "But at the same time I'm not surprised in the least. This Administration has consistently shown a great deal of hypocrisy between their talk about supporting the troops and what they've actually done," he added.
"From the cuts in the VA budget, reductions in various pays for soldiers deployed . . . to the most recent things like those we've seen at Fort Stewart, where soldiers who are wounded are not being treated well, the Administration has shown a blatant disregard for the needs of the soldiers." Pollack was referring to 600 wounded, ill and injured soldiers at a base in Georgia who were recently reported to be suffering from terrible living conditions, poor medical treatment and bureaucratic indifference. During a recent stop at Fort Stewart, President Bush visited returning soldiers but bypassed the wounded next door.
"Bush's inaction is a national disgrace," said one Gulf War I vet, speaking off the record. "I'm distressed at the lack of coverage -- amounting to government censorship -- of the funerals of returning U.S. service members.
"Bush loves to go to military bases near fundraisers," he continued. "The taxpayers pay for his trip, then he rakes in the cash. Soldiers are ordered to behave and be quiet at Bush events. What a way to get a friendly crowd! The bottom line is that if Bush attended a funeral now, it would highlight a few things: 1) There's a war going on, stupid; 2) There are bodies flying home in coffins censored by the Pentagon; and 3) Bush is insensitive to families and veterans."
Even as a propaganda strategy hatched by a PR flak, Bush's absence at funerals or memorial services -- or even being photographed greeting the wounded -- is starting to look less savvy. On September 8, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote of one D.C. family's outrage that the President had not only been unable to attend the funeral of Spec. Darryl T. Dent, 21, killed in Iraq while serving in the District of Columbia's National Guard, but hadn't sent his condolences either.
"We haven't heard from him or the White House, not a word," Marion Bruce, Dent's aunt and family spokeswoman, told Milloy. "I don't want to speak for the whole family, but I am not pleased." A month later, after it was revealed by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post that the Pentagon was for the first time enforcing a ban on all media photographs of coffins and body bags leaving the war zone or arriving in America, more critics came to believe in their heart what their guts had been telling them for some time: that the White House was doggedly intent on not associating the President with slain American troops, lest it harm the already tarnished image of the Iraq occupation as a nearly bloodless "cakewalk" for the United States. (One official told Milbank that only individual graveside services, open to cameras at the discretion of relatives, give "the full context" of a soldier's sacrifice: "To do it at several stops along the way doesn't tell the full story and isn't representative.")
"I'm appalled," said Gulf War I vet Charles Sheehan-Miles, when asked about the lack of attention paid the dead and wounded. "The impact of the president not talking about [casualties] is huge -- it goes back to the whole question of morale of the troops back in Iraq; they're fighting a war that the president says is not a war anymore but still is ... they haven't restored democracy, nor did they find any weapons -- and they are being shot at every day."
"It goes back to the reasons behind this war in the first place," continued Sheehan-Miles, executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. "We've got this constant rhetoric that supporting the troops is the equivalent of supporting the President's policies. If you're against the war then you're not for the troops. And this is one of the key things that show the lie of that. The President, the Pentagon and, to a lesser extent, the Congress has shown that they don't have any regard for the people who are fighting the war on their behalf."
Sheehan-Miles noted that the Bush Administration has in recent months sought, and in many cases received, major cuts or elimination of funding set aside for school districts that host military bases (since the troops are exempt from paying the taxes to support these schools), combat pay, Veterans Administration per capita expenditures, life insurance benefits and base housing modernization, all the while dramatically lengthening deployment periods. Soldiers are so badly paid their incomes are usually too low to receive Bush's ballyhooed per-child tax credit, Sheehan-Miles adds; while living conditions in Iraq are considered grim even for a war zone.
"I correspond with people in the military," says Sheehan-Miles. "One of my friends was in a combat battalion who just came back; they were basically just hunkered down there trying to stay alive. He's not going to talk about it though; he's a 20-year vet with a career on the line."
Add to all this the fact that the rate of U.S. military casualties is rising rather than falling, and it becomes understandable why some veterans' advocates are so frustrated with the president's lack of attention to decorum. And for some military families, anger at the war in general is driving otherwise private people to go public with their concerns.
"With any military family, most of them feel very isolated and afraid to speak out," Paul Vogel, whose son Aaron is posted in Iraq, told the Barrington (IL.) Courier-Review. "It's a very frustrating thing for a military family to realize they're paying the price for a war that, at least for military families, is really hard to get all patriotic about. It seems to be unwinnable and unending, and those are the worst words anyone in a military family could hear.
"Our feeling is Bush needs to be as noble and as contrite as he can be to say, 'Hey, we made a mistake, and we need help.'"
Perhaps a funeral would be a good place to start.
Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of the "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."