When the silver casket lid went down on Artimus Brassfield a reflexive, convulsive sob echoed through Ebenezer ministries. In the seconds it took for the coffin to be draped with the American flag, Pastor Seon Thompson reminded the congregation that this was a celebration of his life. By the time the drummer had given them the beat for "He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the lord," they had found their voice.
Brassfield, 22, also went to be a soldier in the 4th infantry division of the American army. By all accounts, throughout his short life there were only two things he really wanted to do - play basketball and join the army. And so the tank driver from Flint, Michigan, was playing basketball at a military base in Samiri, Iraq, on October 24 when a mortar struck and killed both him and 26-year-old José Mora instantly.
Army Spc. Artimus Brassfield of Flint, Mich., seen here in an undated family handout photo, died Friday, Oct. 24, 2003, in Iraq when a mortar struck nearby while he was playing basketball at a military base. Brassfield, 22, had been in Iraq since March. (Family photo via The Flint Journal)
Brassfield was so determined to enlist that he took the entrance test three times. But while he enjoyed serving in the forces, his letters home suggest he had mixed feelings about serving in Iraq. His concerns were personal, not political. The weather was too hot and he was homesick. He asked his mother not to send him chocolate as it would only melt and he looked forward to buying a truck with Michigan plates and eventually opening his own barber's shop.
"I'm pretty blessed to be in Saddam's home town, Tikrit," he wrote in an email to his father. "It's very nice here other than the fact that we're in Iraq and there ain't no escaping it." In a letter to his mother, he tells her: "Be thankful to the Lord that we are American because I don't see how these people live like this."
Brassfield was buried with full honors, the purple heart and bronze star presented to his wife Andrea. In the distance, the bugle played. It was not clear whether it was just a man puffing his cheeks or really playing. Since last month the military has been using "ceremonial buglers" at some military funerals - a tape that can be inserted into the bugle and sounds like the real thing. "We've got 1,800 veterans dying each day, and only 500 buglers," said Lt Col Cynthia Colin, a defense department spokeswoman. "We needed to do something to fill the void."
The mother of Donald Wheeler, who was killed 11 days earlier by a rocket-propelled grenade, sent her condolences to the Brassfields. "I hope you never wonder whether or not your son's death was in vain," she wrote. "He died for my freedom and your freedom too. What a hero!"
The Brassfields have no doubt that Artimus was a hero. His father, Cary, who served in the military himself, says he is proud that his son served his country, but he is not sure his heroism was put to good use: "Evidently the war is over and yet we still have people dying every day. He was a sitting duck. Who is going to be the next person? I don't want to say my patriotism is diminishing. But I'm losing confidence in the purpose of us being there."
Artimus's aunt, Karmen Williams, believes President Bush should withdraw the troops now. "He needs to say enough is enough, just bring our boys home."
For years political orthodoxy had it that America would no longer know days like these. Not because it was shy about going to war, but because after Vietnam it was determined not to incur large numbers of casualties in doing so. The US military would bomb from a great height or use proxies to enforce its will. Public opinion would endorse the country's involvement in most military conflicts, so long as the nation did not have to endure the sight of its young men and women coming home in body bags. As Henry Shelton, the chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff, said in 1999, a decision to use military force is based in part on whether it will pass "the Dover test" - public reaction to bodies arriving at the country's only military mortuary in Dover, Delaware.
Dr Joseph Dawson, a military historian at Texas A&M university, says the American public's response to casualties is qualified by what they believe the soldiers are fighting for. "If the cause seems significant enough then Americans will bear the loss," he says, pointing to the huge death tolls in the second world war and the civil war. "But if the cause no longer appears to be significant they will not. It's still rather too early to read public opinion about this cause."
But now almost every day there is a funeral like Artimus's somewhere in the country. With victory already declared, two-thirds believe the number of casualties are unacceptable and more than half believe that the US will get bogged down in Iraq, according to a Washington Post poll earlier this week.
You can call it news control or information control of flat-out propaganda.
Whatever you call it, this is the most extensive effort at spinning a war that the department of defense has ever undertaken in this country. Casualties are a very important media football in any war [and] this is a qualitative change.
Christopher Simpson, a communications professor at Washington's American University
The shooting down of the Chinook helicopter on Sunday ended the deadliest week in the war and intensified pressure on the president to address the issue of casualties directly. "We're now encountering deaths at rates we haven't seen since Vietnam," says David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, "and I think it's important for the country to hear from the president at times like these and for the families to know. I think the weight is on the side of clear expression," he told the New York Times.
At the opening of the upgraded Dover mortuary last week, Senator Joseph R Biden said: "The idea that this facility is opening at a time when body bags are coming home is not a glad time. Thank God [the center] is here, but I wish we didn't need to build it. Everyone thought this was going to be like Gulf war one, that Johnny and Jack would be home by Christmas."
On December 21 1989, President George Bush senior was holding a press conference about the US intervention in Panama as the first American fatalities from the conflict were arriving at Dover.
With General Manuel Noriega still at large and half of America believing the military intervention could not be regarded a success while he remained so, it was a politically sensitive time. At the beginning of the briefing the president had told reporters he was suffering from neck pain. At the end he did a duck walk to illustrate his stiffness. That's when "the goof-a-meter went off the charts", as one correspondent put it.
Unbeknown to the White House, three major news networks had moved to a split screen. While the president shared his light-hearted moment with the press corps on one half, America's dead were arriving in caskets on the other. It was a public relations disaster. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater described the coverage as "outrageous and unfair" and vowed to express his "extreme dissatisfaction" to the channels concerned.
Less than a year later the White House decreed a ban on traditional military ceremonies and media coverage marking the return of the bodies of US soldiers to Dover. It was an abrupt shift in policy for what had become a national wartime ritual. Along with yellow ribbons and flag waving, the scenes from Dover were part of the American war experience.
For the next 12 years the ban was largely ignored, even after it was extended to all military bases during the last days of the Clinton administration. But this March, shortly before the war began, the Pentagon handed down a directive that made it perfectly clear it expected the policy to be heeded.
Bush writes to each family, but his friends say he was offended by what he regarded as Clinton's occasionally gushing public performances, which he felt turned private grief into political gain. The trouble for Bush is that the public liked Clinton for his ability to empathize. Bush's apparent reluctance to publicly identify with the dead is beginning to look like a desire to disassociate himself from the failure of the mission. When news of the downed Chinook came through on Sunday he stayed in his ranch and let defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld meet the press.
"The public wants the commander-in-chief to have proper perspective and keep his eye on the big picture and the ball," says Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. "At the same time, they want their president to understand the hardship and sacrifice many Americans are enduring at a time of war. And we believe he is striking that balance."
Others disagree. They say the growing number of casualties is the ball, which is precisely why the Pentagon enforced the ban on coverage at Dover. "You can call it news control or information control of flat-out propaganda," says Christopher Simpson, a communications professor at Washington's American University. "Whatever you call it, this is the most extensive effort at spinning a war that the department of defense has ever undertaken in this country. Casualties are a very important media football in any war [and] this is a qualitative change."
Either way, implementing the ruling has had an effect. For the first time since war in the television era, the sight of flag-covered caskets arriving to the salute of military colleagues and the tears of mourning relatives are no longer part of the national narrative. Bush has not attended the funeral of a single soldier slain in the war and refers to the casualties only in general terms. Without Dover, there can be no Dover test.
The bald numbers of the death toll dominate political debate and public disquiet. But the human impact behind those statistics has been scattered to communities throughout the country. The bodies travel from a global conflict to local crises without apparently touching the national consciousness. Even on a regional level the deaths receive scant attention. Detroit is only 60 miles from Flint but Artimus's death made neither of the city's two papers.
"This is the fifth soldier in Flint to have died," says Ken Palmer, a reporter for the Flint Journal, "and the third since the president declared the war was over. The first couple had a real impact. But now I think people are becoming numb."
Yesterday, Cary Brassfield woke up to the news that two more soldiers had died in Iraq and the administration promise that its campaign in Iraq will be unrelenting. "The ones that are speaking do not have the same stakes that we have," says Artimus's father. "They have their political careers. But our homes are being torn apart."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003