Obama breaks a presidential taboo: seeing the war dead come home

In the Bush years, these ceremonies were a no-go area. Rupert Cornwell reports on the return of public, presidential grief
Click to follow
The Independent US

Saluting stiffly, his coat jacket whipped by a blustery wind, the commander-in-chief watched as the coffin was borne past him by six army soldiers in combat fatigues. Or, to put it another way, an American President was spending a night without sleep, to experience the ultimate human cost of a war that, though he might not wish it, is now his responsibility.

As Wednesday became Thursday, Barack Obama went where, in the memory of historians, none of his recent predecessors had been: to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the place where American soldiers killed in foreign wars are brought on their final return home. That night there were 18, all from Afghanistan.

His visit had been kept secret almost until the moment Mr Obama arrived by helicopter from the White House, half an hour after midnight. The small pool of reporters on the 100-mile journey were allowed to witness the "dignified transfer" – as the military call it – of only one of them: Sgt Dale Griffin from Indiana, who died on Tuesday when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan.

But for each of the others the same sequence unfolded. Anxious to avoid implying that these occasions are anything other than bleak and empty, the military doesn't call them a "ceremony". But to all intents and purposes, a ceremony is what they are.

First the President walked slowly with an official party up a ramp into the belly of the great, grey C-17 cargo plane. Then the group emerged to form a line of honour, headed by Mr Obama. As he and the other officials saluted, the coffin was carried past, into a white van that would take it to the mortuary on the base. The ritual was repeated 17 times, before the President finally boarded his helicopter and returned to Washington, just before dawn.

Earlier this year the Pentagon relaxed a ban, in force since the 1991 Gulf War, on media coverage of returning war dead. It is now up to their families to decide whether to permit photos and television images of the flag-draped coffins of loved ones.

President George Bush, who ordered the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq, was anything but indifferent to the fate of the men he sent into battle. He spent much time with veterans and relatives of the fallen, and visited wounded soldiers, many of them amputees, in Walter Reed Army Hospital here. But he never went to Dover, and tightened the original ban on reporting from the base.

For Mr Obama the visit will only have underlined how war and its human cost are the toughest part of his, or any Presidency. "It is something I think about each and every day" he said yesterday. And few wars pose tougher challenges than Afghanistan. Sgt Griffin was only one of at least 55 soldiers to have died there in October, the bloodiest month yet.

But despite the sacrifice, this ever- more unpopular conflict has no end in sight. It has now lasted eight years, almost as long as direct US involvement in Vietnam, with which it is increasingly compared. Today, Mr Obama meets the chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, as he moves towards his most fateful decision in the Oval Office: whether to accede to the request of General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, for an extra 40,000 soldiers on top of the 65,000 already there.

In the process, he must resolve the uncertainty over why America is there in the first place: to defeat al-Q'aida, to win a war, or to build a nation? But, as he saw himself in the dark early hours of yesterday, whatever he decides, men will die.