How Should We Honor Fallen Soldiers?

I saw the coffins arrive by accident. I was at Dover Air Force Base a couple of years ago pursuing another story on my Pentagon beat, and a senior Air Force officer took me to watch the giant C-17 arrive and discharge its melancholy cargo. The scene was off the record; no press or photographers allowed. As I recall, there were six coffins and a few small clumps of civilians to receive them. One by one the flag-draped coffins slid down from the nose of the cargo plane, and one by one the coffins were shepherded by an honor guard—a half dozen soldiers in dress uniforms and white gloves—to waiting hearses. One or two elderly people wept; everyone else was stoical. There were no bugles. No bands. There was no pageantry—just the heavy tread of the honor guard in a ritual perfected through much repetition. It was an event so moving in its intimacy and restraint, out there on the acres of concrete, that I felt an intruder. I was glad there were no waiting cameras and flashbulbs.

Last week President Obama was asked if he'd reverse the ban on media at Dover. Somewhat haltingly, he announced that he was reviewing the policy and, sure enough, Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that he'd launched a review the instant he heard President Obama's remarks. A congressman, Walter Jones of North Carolina, has introduced a bill to lift the press ban, and there is a widespread feeling that cameras should be allowed to witness the returning coffins as a way of reminding the public of the cost of war.

In truth, it's not an easy issue. It never has been. For many years, dead soldiers were buried where they fell, or close to, at home or abroad. Arlington National Cemetery got its start as an act of vengeance: it was the site of a family home of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and a Union general, tasked with burying the Union dead, supposedly said, "We'll plant them in Bobby Lee's front lawn." It wasn't until the Korean War that the United States started routinely shipping bodies home. The Dover ceremony became familiar to the public in the 1980s, in part because President Reagan was such an affecting figure mourning the dead as they were returned from Lebanon or other locations where U.S. soldiers were dying. On the eve of ground combat in the first Gulf war in 1991, the administration of George H.W. Bush grappled with a grisly question: war planners were expecting so many combat fatalities that they worried that the military would have to use forklifts and pallets at Dover. President Bush instituted the camera ban, which persists to this day.

The military loves rules, and the Army's Regulation 638-2 covering "Care and Disposition of Remains and Disposition of Personal Effects" runs to 147 dense pages. Something called "Timeline: Death Cases" lists 16 steps, from the first frantic message that a soldier is dead to helping the bereaved family apply for benefits. Dover is step six: "Remains shipped to preparing mortuary." Dover houses one of the military's two mortuaries (the other is at Travis Air Force Base in California). Dead soldiers, their bodies sometimes torn and bloody from the battlefield, are packed in ice, placed in a casket and flown directly to Dover, where they are cared for. Then the body is sent on to the soldier's hometown for a military funeral—with plenty of publicity if the family wishes to allow it.

The military's aim is to move the bodies from the battlefield to Dover in two days. If cameras are present to greet the caskets, there will be a great deal of pressure on the families to be there, too—an emotional and financial hardship for many. Some may want a public ceremony; some may want privacy and silence. Is there a better way to honor their privacy and meet their needs while making sure the public is reminded of the price of war? Canada may have an answer. The more than 100 Canadian soldiers who have fallen in combat in Afghanistan have been flown to Trenton air base, then driven 107 miles to the mortuary in Toronto. A stretch of Canada's Highway 401 has become known as the Highway of Heroes. When the military hearse drives down it, all other traffic is blocked; police and fire trucks, lights flashing, line each overpass, and hundreds of Canadians, flags in hand, wait along the highway. Perhaps fallen American soldiers could arrive at Andrews Air Force Base— with the sort of quiet, dignified ceremony I chanced to witness—and then be carried by hearse (anonymously; no family need be present) to the mortuary at Dover, 102 miles away by road and highway. The route could pass by the White House.