Americans' willingness to accept body bags long has been an important gauge of their support for military conflicts. So important, in fact, that the Pentagon has a term for measuring public reaction to the flag-draped coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base and other locations: the "Dover test."
Fear of failing that test influenced the Clinton administration's decision to wage the 1999 Kosovo war from the air, without ground troops. When 18 U.S. soldiers were slaughtered in Somalia in 1993 and TV broadcasted the grisly images, a public outcry forced a swift U.S. pullout.
Today, flag-draped coffins again are arriving at Dover, as the toll from the Iraq war rises. So far, 341 troops have been killed, including 202 since major combat ended May 1. But the bodies are returning out of public view because the Bush administration is barring media coverage.
Its action confuses cause and effect. Images of body bags don't cause the public to question military campaigns. Rather, questions about the rightness of the missions feed doubts. A clear-eyed assessment of the nation's involvement has a better chance of garnering public support than efforts to squash legitimate news coverage.
Pentagon officials point out that the ban on covering the return of dead soldiers was adopted at the end of the Clinton administration. Yet the policy has been breached several times — with beneficial results for the military. When CIA operative Johnny Spann was killed in Afghanistan in December 2001, the media were allowed to cover the return of his remains, an event that spurred support for the war in Afghanistan.
Shielding these tragic arrivals from view is part of a troubling response to the public's recent war worries. In the past month, administration officials have criticized the media for painting too gloomy a picture of Iraq's postwar conditions. The reality, they say, is much more positive.
Throughout history, Americans have shown constancy in supporting just military endeavors. They persevered during World War II, even for much of the Vietnam War. But long-term support is dependent on honest portrayals. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the right standard last week in a candid memo to top staff obtained by USA TODAY. He acknowledged the enormous challenges in stabilizing Iraq and pushed top officials to think about how to address them.
Better to trust Americans with the same unvarnished truth than worry they'll fail the "Dover test."
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