Originally appeared at The New Republic.
U.S. Marines, not noted for their sentimentality, call the flights that carry their dead comrades home “angel flights.” I witnessed my first of these at a remote airfield in Anbar province, Iraq, in 2005. For about an hour, all activity on the tarmac ceased, including my own unloading of a 727 in my job as a commercial shipper. A furious Marine officer ran to confront me and demand that my pilot cut the 727′s engines. The pilot protested–his plane was nearly unloaded, and he wanted to fly to a safer airport as soon as possible–but the Marine permitted no debate. The engines powered down, and in the desert silence, from a distance of a few hundred feet, I could hear the clopping of individual boots as hundreds of Marines filed in to stand at attention and watch the chilled metal box proceed slowly into the belly of the plane.
That ceremony, like the transfer of remains that greeted the corpse when it touched down at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, was closed to press. In Anbar, they let me watch only from a distance, and because to move my plane would have been impractical. When the next dead soldier comes home to U.S. soil, the homecoming ceremony probably will probably not be closed: Amid controversy, the Pentagon has decided to allow the media to cover the Dover ceremonies, if the kin of the deceased consent. But in his announcement, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said nothing about the transfer of remains that happens in theater, among the fellow soldiers and Marines who have to send their fallen colleague home. The end of the blackout is a step forward, and should extend to the angel flights as well.
The origins of the Dover ban show why it was a cynical idea in the first place. In 1989, George H. W. Bush inadvertently scheduled a press conference for the exact moment when the coffins of dead soldiers arrived after the invasion of Panama. Bush’s giddy mood in the White House (he joked around, and even did some physical comedy) made a disastrous counterpoint to the solemnity at Dover, which the networks ran on a split-screen. So during the Gulf War less than two years later, the Pentagon implemented a ban on media–with the stated aim of preserving the dignity and privacy of the bereaved, and the unstated aim of saving the president from again looking like an insensitive lout. But a memorandum from the Army itself later argued for lifting it. And the majority of stricken families opt to let media cover their lost relatives’ interment (staff at Arlington estimate that two-thirds of the families who have buried a relative there have allowed media). The ban on coverage at Dover was almost certainly not for their benefit.
The strongest evidence that we deserve a more open policy is from Canada. The 2,800 Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan have taken casualties at a rate comparable to the U.S.’s during its worst months in Iraq. Coffins draped with the Maple Leaf leave Kandahar and arrive in Trenton, Ontario, just east of Toronto. Reporters photograph every stage of the journey home. The images and sounds on Canadian nightly news contrast startlingly with the American ones: bagpipes and dead marches at a dust-blown outpost in Afghanistan, soldiers twitching to fight back tears. In the last three years, Canada has seen these reports after the deaths of over a hundred soldiers.
The Canadian Forces put their grief on serial display for reasons not only of openness, but also of reputation. A Canadian prime minister, Lester Pearson, was the father of United Nations peacekeeping operations, and over the decades, the Canadian military accrued a reputation in some quarters as blue-helmeted do-nothings whose rules of engagement leave them powerless to stop even brazen acts of mass murder. The Canadian Forces understandably wanted to resist that impression by showing the world that their soldiers’ work entailed the same combat, heroism, and risk that other countries’ soldiers face. The U.S., of course, has a very different reputation, so instead of sensitizing people to the dangers of military service, the policies have the effect of isolating them from those realities.
Last July, while I was reporting in Afghanistan, Canadian Corporal Jim Arnal stepped on a mine in Panjwaii, site of some of the fiercest fighting since the beginning of the war. Just before dusk at Kandahar Air Field, the base’s soldiers assembled for a ramp ceremony that would, if Arnal were American, have gone unreported. Instead, I was there, along with a video crew and two others with cameras.
The summer heat in Kandahar doesn’t normally abate until nightfall, but that afternoon the sky reddened with dust and a few clouds blotted out the sun a little before schedule. On the flightline, soldiers marched in and lined up in two groups facing each other, forming a lane hundreds of feet long from a LAV personnel carrier (a Kandahar hearse) to a transport plane. At least half a dozen NATO countries had forces at KAF, so the parade of uniforms amounted to a remarkable display of multilateral solidarity. At the head of the files nearest the plane, the ranking officers from each military–a tall Frenchman, a mustachioed Dutch general, and nearest the plane itself, Canada’s ranking soldier in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Denis Thompson–stood saluting as Arnal’s friends and colleagues carried the coffin. They stepped with the halting, jerky gait of men carrying more than one kind of heavy burden. I have never seen anyone weeping so intensely. It would have been very hard to rob that moment of its power, even with a camera.
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic.