April 2003

by Patrick J. Sloyan

The huzzahs for the embattled wartime leader began to fade in a Baltimore television studio last week when the camera zoomed in on a photograph held by Michael Waters-Bey. It showed his son, Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall Waters-Bey, 29, who was incinerated when his helicopter crashed in southern Iraq.

"I want President Bush to get a good look at this, a real good look here," the grieving father said. "This is the only son I had, the only son."

His comments flashed nationwide, personalized American voter misgivings over the human sacrifices for Bush's stumbling mission in the desert. For the president's political handlers, the Baltimore episode was a frontal assault on Bush's 60 per cent approval rating among Americans who will decide his reelection next year.

Right-wing radio talk show hosts, with close ties to Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser, launched an instant counterattack on Waters-Bey; He was portrayed as an unpatriotic and indirectly supporting Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad.

But Waters-Bey would not back down.

"If it is for the right cause, I am for war," he told reporters. "But I don't think this war is a just cause.

"They say they're freeing the people from slaughter but basically it is all about oil. It aint' about Saddam Hussein."

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, once employed and endowed with political funds by the U.S. oil industry, have sought to dismiss oil as an issue in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Waters-Bey's perception of the war on what was once the world's second largest exporter of oil is most widely accepted in the Islamic world boiling over the American and British invasion.

And, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, leader of coalition forces, reinforced that view during a news briefing last week. According to Franks, the controversial "rolling start," to the conflict was designed to preserve Iraq's oil fields from destruction by the Iraqi president.

Just as frazzled is Bush's claim that Saddam was somehow responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. And, so far, Iraqi citizens have not acted as victims set free by a liberating army.

For Bush, the politics of the war on Iraq become more difficult as casualties mount for both coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. According to a Gallup poll last month, 41 per cent of Americans interviewed expect less than 100 soldiers killed in the war; 34 per
cent expect several hundred and 12 per cent of the poll expect more than 1,000 will be killed in Iraq.

While Americans tend to unify behind a president when a war starts, they recoil at the reality of death and dismemberment of their own troops as well as the civilians shattered by "collateral damage." That's what happened to Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War as U.S. troops routinely killed villagers as they hunted the communist
Vietcong. It led to his decision to step down as president in 1968. For Johnson, the shift in public opinion took four years before the Vietnam became a nightly feature on network television.

But the televised reality of death and destruction in Baghdad as well as southern Iraq has been in the nation's living rooms since the first units crossed the Kuwaiti border. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has waged a ham-handed attack on reports from journalists slogging along with the troops.

"What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq," said Rumsfeld during a recent Pentagon briefing. "What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq. We're seeing that particularized perspective that that reporter, or that commentator, or what that television camera happens to be able to see at that moment.

"And it is not what's taking place," Rumsfeld fumed.

American expectations, like those of coalition generals, are based on President George H.W. Bush's war in the desert 12 years ago. While 148 were recorded as killed in combat, most died from accidents and fratricide called Friendly Fire by the grunts. According to Gen. John Yeosock, commander of all U.S. Army forces in Desert Storm, not a single soldier was killed by Iraqi fire during the ground war in 1991.
(He discounts the Scud that killed 27 Americans in Saudi Arabia).

Now, coalition casualties are likely to soar well beyond 100 and the scene in Baltimore is certain to be repeated in communities across the nation. Bush's political operatives at the Pentagon have already botched the casualty issue. Army spokesmen in Qatar said the number of dead and wounded would not be disclosed at Central Command headquarters there.

When a local Marine headquarters in South Carolina announced a casualty toll, the Pentagon quickly objected and forced a retraction by the Marine spokesman. Since then, Pentagon officials have reluctantly posted a daily tally that often lags behind media reports from the battlefield.

Bush has reimposed a blackout of media coverage of the dead who are processed through the Charles Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. For more than 30 years, television cameras broadcast the white-gloved honor guard escorting the flag-covered coffins from aircraft at Dover. Often a band would play a mournful dirge.

And, the photographs and video would emphasize the size of some foreign debacle. A sea of caskets covered the tarmac in 1983 with the bodies of 241 Marines killed by a terrorist bomb in Beirut.

The last time Americans viewed the ceremonies at Dover was in 1989 when bodies began arriving from Panama. They had been dispatched by Bush the Elder to capture Gen. Manuel Noriega, the Panamian leader who ran afoul of U.S. policies.

While Bush was boasting at a news conference of the success in Panama, television networks split the screen for viewers to see the bodies arriving at Dover. "Aw, give me a break," Bush complained after seeing the split screen. He ordered a media ban at the base and his son has continued the blackout.

In 1991, veteran groups protested the ban which was also extended to families. According the American Legion, a nationwide organization for veterans, the exclusion robbed the fallen of a brief moment of recognition in the national spotlight.

Today, the ban is justified to speed things along. "It slows the transfer of the remains to families," said Air Force Lt. Olivia Nelson, the Dover spokesman. "It was an economic and emotional hardship to have the families coming to the base."

It also avoids the reaction of family members at the sight of the remains. But that moment was photographed this week at Bradley Airport in Connecticut. The body of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Jordan was flown home from Dover. His wife, Amanda, bent over at the sight of his coffin cover in red, white and blue.

In cities and towns where the burial ceremonies are more private, military funeral honors have become frayed. A lack of manpower and buglers has downsized the display. Only two soldiers—one from the dead soldier's service—are available along with a flag that is folded and presented to the next of kin. A tape recording of Taps is played on a boombox.

"The tapes wore out and we started using CDs," said Mark Word, who oversees the Pentagon's funeral service program. "Now, we are field testing a digital bugle." The $50,000 program features a brass bugle with an electronic insert. There is a volume control. All the "bugler," has to do is push a button and, after a seven-second delay,
the notes of farewell are played flawlessly.

According to Mike Duggan of the American Legion, the group's veterans are standing by to fill funeral manpower gaps if called upon by the Defense Department. The Legion can produce four pallbearers, a four-man color guard and a seven-man squad to fire rifle blanks over the grave. "It cost about $460 for the firing squad but each local post
comes up with the money," Duggan said.

They may be called if coalition troops are forced into a house-by-house firefight in the souks of Baghdad and Tikrit.

Secretary of State Colin Powell sounded more like the Army general he once was when battlefield commanders began complaining about the lack of troops to deal with the surprising opposition in southern Iraq. Powell took an indirect potshot at Paul Wolfowitz, an academic hawk who, as Deputy Defense Secretary, has been a leader in predicting a walk-over for the military in Iraq.

"When it comes to war, that is (casualties) the price that has to be paid," Powell said. "And, it's not paid by intellectuals but by the wonderful young Americans who serve their country."

©2002 Patrick J. Sloyan
Contributing Editor

Sloyan is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has covered national and international events since 1960.

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