The War Takes its Toll
Published on Sunday, May 28, 2006 by the Long Island, New York Newsday
The War Takes its Toll
by Les Payne

The letters-to-the-editor page this Memorial Day period is ringing with at least as much wisdom - and far more passion - than the editorial pros instructing the masses on what they should think about their government's war on Iraq.

Sometimes the message is muted and the passion somewhat subtle, as with the following letter that appeared last week in the Orlando Sentinel:

"Last Wednesday night I was on a US Airways flight to Orlando International Airport. Forty-five minutes prior to landing, the pilot announced our plane was carrying the remains of a fallen Marine, and that he would be honored in various ways upon arrival.

"I did notice a passenger in his dress blues and shiny shoes, but did not know until the pilot made his announcement the Marine was there to accompany his comrade's body, and would join the Honor Guard when the coffin was taken from the belly of the plane.

"Orange County Fire Rescue was on the tarmac to greet our plane by soaking it with massive arcs of water. The Marine passenger was escorted off the plane first while everyone applauded.

"Once inside the terminal, I was struck with silence; not the usual hubbub with which one is greeted upon arriving. It was a 9 p.m. arrival, but there were hundreds of people of all races, ages and socioeconomic status, four deep, staring out the windows, watching the ceremonial proceedings with absolute respect.

"Thinking about the young man's arrival, being transported in that way to his family, brought me to tears. We often have read and heard about these 'homecomings' since the beginning of the war (and certainly many wars previous). But as the news stories get more horrific and mind-boggling, we tend to become numb to their effect on us.

"Although this hero was a stranger to me, knowing that he was inside the same plane carrying us both home, I was slapped out of numbness into the stark reality of the difference in our individual homecomings."

This letter from Starlyn J. First, printed again here in full appreciation of its sentiments, shares a stranger's view of a brush with war. Distant, yes, but nonetheless poignant and relevant to each American no matter his or her view of the Iraq War.

This muted message from the Winter Springs stranger puts us in touch this Memorial Day weekend with a life lost for a shared circumstance. To the body in the box it no longer matters whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that President George W. Bush took the country to war over a series of calculated lies. What matters, postmortem, is that the Marine has not been forgotten, at least by friends and relatives - and those strangers at the airport who share a common circumstance.

President Bush has barred strangers from the airport when the bodies are returned. The administration fears that the very real image of flag-draped coffins might remind Americans of his ongoing, ill-advised war. The media whose duty it is to inform the citizenry have been forbidden to record images of those coffins bearing U.S. soldiers back from Iraq to Dover Air Force Base. The media have meekly complied - publishing pictures only by military photographers - as they have with so much else from this Bush White House.

So too has Congress so far gone in cowardly self-interest. As for that other Constitution-empowered check on the executive branch, the U.S. Supreme Court differs from a rubber stamp on Bush policies only in that the latter leaves an impression.

It took a bold FBI raid last weekend on the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), a senior congressman suspected of bribery, to remind this august, national legislative body that the Constitution's separation of powers still applies to the executive branch. As for the press, the U.S. attorney general, one Alberto Gonzales, is thumbing through its dossier in search of line-of-duty indictments. It is upon just such feet that totalitarianism creeps in.

Meanwhile, those flag-draped coffins continue to slip silently into the hometowns of America. To date, it is the men and women of the military who are being sacrificed upon the altar of a presidency run amok. Tomorrow it might be Congress. Then the press. Then it will be too late.

© 2006 Newsday