Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Washington–CHARLES H. Buehring came home last week. He arrived at the air force base in Dover, Del., in the middle of the night, in an aluminum shipping case draped in an American flag.

When the military truck drove his remains across the tarmac, workers paused and removed their hats.

He was met by a six-member honour guard acting as pallbearers, to allow a “dignified transfer” to the Charles C. Carson mortuary, where he became one of an estimated 60,000 American casualties of war that have been processed there over almost five decades.

“It reminds us we are at war,” says Lt.-Col. Jon Anderson, who describes business at the Dover mortuary as “steady.”

But America never saw Lt.-Col. Buehring’s arrival, days after a rocket from a homemade launcher ended his life at age 40 in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Rasheed Hotel last Monday.

Americans have never seen any of the other 359 bodies returning from Iraq. Nor do they see the wounded cramming the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington or soldiers who say they are being treated inhumanely awaiting medical treatment at Fort Stewart, Ga.

In order to continue to sell an increasingly unpopular Iraqi invasion to the American people, President George W. Bush’s administration sweeps the messy parts of war — the grieving families, the flag-draped coffins, the soldiers who have lost limbs — into a far corner of the nation’s attic.

No television cameras are allowed at Dover.

Bush does not attend the funerals of soldiers who gave their lives in his war on terrorism.

Buehring of Winter Springs, Fla., described as “a great American” by his commanding officer, had two sons, 12 and 9, was active in the Boy Scouts and his church and had served his country for 18 years.

No government official has said a word publicly about him.

If stories of wounded soldiers are told, they are told by hometown papers, but there is no national attention given to the recuperating veterans here in the nation’s capital.

More than 1,700 Americans have been wounded in Iraq since the March invasion.

“You can call it news control or information control or 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 defence has ever undertaken in this country.”

Simpson notes that photos of the dead returning to American soil have historically been part of the ceremony, part of the picture of conflict and part of the public closure for families — until now.

“This White House is the greatest user of propaganda in American history and if they had a shred of honesty, they would admit it. But they can’t.”

Lynn Cutler, a Democratic strategist and former official in Bill Clinton’s White House, says this is the first time in history that bodies have been brought home under cover of secrecy.

“It feels like Vietnam when Lyndon Johnson was accused of hiding the body bags ….

“This is a big government and a big Pentagon and they could have someone there to meet these bodies as they come back to the country.”

But today’s military doesn’t even use the words “body bags” — a term in common usage during the Vietnam War, when 58,000 Americans died.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon began calling them “human remains pouches” and it now refers to them as “transfer tubes.”

One term that has crept into the U.S. military lexicon, however, is the “Dover test,” shorthand for the American public’s tolerance for wartime fatalities.

The policy of banning cameras at Dover dates back to the 1991 Gulf War, under Bush’s father, Pentagon officials say.

But it has been unevenly applied: You can see photos of soldiers’ bodies returning in coffins from Afghanistan at Ramstein airbase in Germany.

Clinton met returning coffins from Kosovo and, in an elaborate ceremony, was on hand for the arrival of the bodies of his former commerce secretary Ronald Brown and 32 others killed in a 1996 plane crash.

Pictures were allowed of incoming caskets after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and President George H.W. Bush helped eulogize Americans killed in Panama and Lebanon.

But last March, a directive came down reaffirming the banning of cameras, likely in anticipation of the sheer volume of casualties being repatriated.

At Dover, Lt.-Col. Anderson says the policy is strictly in place to respect the privacy of the families, although he is well aware that there are those who think it was a political decision.

“The administration has clearly made an attempt to limit the attention that would build up if they were showing Dover every day,” says Joseph Dawson, a military historian at Texas A & M University.

The White House policy works — to a point.

If there are no pictures of caskets being delivered to U.S. airbases, citizens don’t think of them, analysts say.

Dawson says television pictures of the wounded at Walter Reed would be a jolt to Americans as they head out to dinner or are thinking of the week’s NFL matchups.

Right now, he says, they likely equate war casualties with highway accidents: They know both kill and don’t need to see graphic photos.

“The administration may have to come to grips with this in the months to come. This strategy depends on how long this war goes on. I have to wonder whether it might be a good idea to have a monthly remembrance to reflect on how this campaign is going.”

The need for reflection in America is important, Dawson says, because the country seems to have lapsed back into a state of complacency.

“The country should be asking whether these men and women are putting their lives on the line for a justifiable purpose.”

The Bush strategy, he says, is to divert focus from the dead and the wounded until — or if — his administration’s policy can be judged a winner, then laud the men and women who gave their lives for freedom.

But it is really rooted in the perception in some quarters that the media cost the U.S. the Vietnam War.

There are parallels between Vietnam and Iraq in the words used by the president and in media coverage, even if there is so far no comparison in duration or casualties.

Whereas Lyndon Johnson and his top general, William Westmoreland, spoke of “steady and encouraging success” in Vietnam when they knew differently, Bush last week said the car bombing of the Red Cross showed the “progress” of the American campaign because insurgents were becoming more desperate.

Johnson called U.S. bombing missions “limited in scale” or “commensurate with need” and groused about news coverage. Bush also says the national media are not telling the truth and keeps implying the war in Iraq is needed to prevent another attack on U.S. soil.

Also like the Vietnam era, more attention is being given to U.S. victims the longer the conflict drags on.

The Associated Press last week ran the names and hometowns of all victims since the Iraq invasion began.

In 1969, Life magazine published a famous, black-covered edition consisting entirely of portraits of 250 young Americans who died in Vietnam in one routine week.

Dawson remembers, because his parents cancelled their subscription.

Television images of American soldiers in combat interrupted Americans’ dinners nightly during the Vietnam War.

Clinton took his troops out of Somalia after a photo by the Toronto Star’s Paul Watson, showing crowds cheering as a dead American soldier was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, was beamed around the world on news wires.

Increasing casualties in Iraq have had no such dramatic effect on Bush, but that could change if more attention is paid to the wounded coming home and the way they are being treated.

Walter Reed officials did not return calls seeking comment, but the crush of casualties in late summer was such that outpatients had to be referred to hotels in nearby Silver Spring, Md., because the hospital was full.

The Washington Times said the hospital had treated about 1,700 patients from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Rarely have we seen so many young patients at one time,” a spokesperson said.

Montana soldier Adam McLain, recovering from injuries when a military Humvee drove over his leg and head in Baghdad, told the newspaper from his hospital bed: “I didn’t realize how many people were without limbs or without eyes. It’s just depressing. I feel lucky. I have all my limbs.”

The situation at Walter Reed and the administration’s perceived indifference were highlighted last week by Cher, who visited troops there, then called an open-line show on C-SPAN, the U.S. network that broadcasts congressional debates and other political events.

She did not initially identify herself.

“Why are Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bremer, the president — why aren’t they taking pictures with these guys?” she demanded, referring to Vice-President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.

“I don’t understand why these guys are so hidden, why there are no pictures of them.”

Cher also criticized the media for ignoring the “devastatedly wounded.”

“Don’t hide them,” she said. “Let’s have some news coverage where people are sitting and talking to these guys and seeing their spirit.”

For every Jessica Lynch, the wounded soldier who returned to a hero’s welcome and a book and movie deal, there is a Shoshana Johnson.

Johnson, shot through both legs and held prisoner in Iraq for 22 days, will receive 30 per cent disability benefits, about $700 per month less than her colleague Lynch.

Johnson is black, Lynch is white and the Johnson family says that is the difference.

There is also an ongoing investigation into the condition of patients awaiting treatment at Fort Stewart, Ga., where hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers say they are languishing in dirty barracks waiting months for needed medical treatment.

They say they must hobble across sand to the use the bathroom, are housed 60 to a barracks and must pay for their own toilet paper.

Only recently did the Senate successfully demand the White House stop charging wounded soldiers $8.10 per day for their hospital meals.

Congress also had to step in to increase danger pay and separation pay for soldiers, as it appeared the Bush administration was set to let them expire on Sept. 30.

When Congress formally approved funding for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq, it carved Bush’s request for $87 billion by about $2 billion.

Much of that money will instead be spent — over White House objections — on improved health-care benefits for those in the military reserve and National Guard who are serving in Iraq.