October 1, 2007
John Glisch: True price of war

Documentary exposes Iraq's grimmest reality

War is hell and the price you pay for it is death.

Anyone who has been watching Ken Burns' powerful World War II series "The War" on PBS knows that, as it chronicles combat's grim toll from the deserts of Africa to the fields of Europe and islands of the Pacific.

In doing so, it alludes to something relevant today:

How the Bush administration's ban on photographing or televising the homecoming of the flag-draped coffins of soldiers at all military bases remains part of its carefully crafted plan to hide the true costs of the Iraq war.

And how that manipulation of the truth continues to dishonor the ultimate sacrifice made by our fallen troops and their loved ones.

As Burns' film shows, it was the opposite in WWII.

Knowing the struggle would be long and Americans had to confront it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 rejected the recommendation of his military advisors. He ordered that pictures of fallen troops be released.

The first shocking images -- three soldiers sprawled dead on a New Guinea beach and dozens of bloated Marines corpses floating along the Tarawa shoreline -- opened America's eyes to the war's bloody reality and helped galvanize the nation's resolve.

But since Vietnam, all presidents have worried their wars would lose support once the public started seeing the coffins streaming home aboard transport planes -- never mind the bodies on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, several participated in solemn ceremonies marking the return of casualties that received press coverage.

President Carter did it after the failed Iran hostage rescue mission in 1980; Reagan did it after 241 Marines were killed in Beirut in 1983; the elder Bush did it after the invasion of Panama in 1989; Clinton did it after the Nairobi terrorist bombing in 1998.

But not Bush.

Instead, on the eve of the Iraq war in March 2003, the obsessively secret White House ordered a blackout on news coverage or photography of dead troops returning home, hoping that what could be kept out of sight could be kept out mind.

That's why to this day and more than 3,800 coffins later, Americans, most of whom have turned against the war, do not understand the conflict's real cost even though many believe it's their duty to face it.

That was clear in February when the body of Pfc. Branden Cummings, 20, of Titusville, came home after he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Valentine's Day.

More than 1,000 people attended his funeral and burial at Brevard Memorial Park in Port St. John, an outpouring of grief and sympathy that FLORIDA TODAY and other news organizations covered with quiet respect.

Not one complaint was ever heard about invading the family's privacy -- the transparent guise the White House still uses to legitimize the blackout.

Rather, letters to the newspaper and comments on our Web site spoke softly and movingly about how Cummings gave his life for our country while offering the thoughts and prayers of our community to his family.

The final espisodes of Burns' film air this week and should be seen by everyone.

Unlike the Bush administration, he's not blacking out anything, but revealing the true price we all pay for war.

Glisch is FLORIDA TODAY's editorial page editor. Contact him at (321) 242-3968 or jglisch@ floridatoday.com.