November 2, 2003. 02:13 PM
dead out of sight Bush team doesn't want people to
see human cost of war Even body bags are now
sanitized as 'transfer tubes'
by Tim Harper
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
When the military truck drove his remains across
the tarmac, workers paused and removed their
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
"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
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
No government official has said a word publicly
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But it is really rooted in the perception in
some quarters that the media cost the U.S. the
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
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
The Associated Press last week ran the names and
hometowns of all victims since the Iraq invasion
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
Television images of
American soldiers in combat interrupted
Americans' dinners nightly during the Vietnam
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
"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
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
"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, 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
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.
One for the history books: "We don't do body
counts" - General Tommy Franks, US
Central Command: Click
for a website for those who do want to know how
many Iraqis the "coalition" forces have so far
track of actual deaths in Iraq