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Remembering the high price of war

In the powerful new movie "The Messenger", Tony Stone (played by Woody Harrelson) and Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster) are members of the Army's Casualty Notification service. For 107 cringe-inducing minutes we watch them perform the unenviable duty of informing next of kin that their sons, daughters, husbands or wives have been killed in action. The message must be delivered as soon and as bluntly as possible. The toll this takes on the families is heart-wrenching.

But this is a story told from the perspective of Montgomery and Stone, whose anguish is no less excruciating. At one point, Stone laments the disconnect between the American people and the wars being fought on their behalf. “You know what I think," he says to Montgomery, who is new to the unit. "I think they should show every goddamned funeral on TV. Live. Have the president come by time to time. Eulogize. The vice president. Get people used to it. I mean are we at war or what?”

The fictional scene playing out on the screen at the E Street Cinema on Thursday had powerful real-world resonance. In that day's pre-dawn hours, President Obama stood on the tarmac at Dover Air Force base to salute the sacrifice of 15 soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Agents killed in two different incidents in Afghanistan this week.

The symbolism of that previously unannounced visit was unmistakable. After seven years and two on-going wars, this was the first time we'd seen the president honor the dead at their first stop on the way to their final resting place. And this comes while Obama considers his options for a change in strategy in Afghanistan. It was also the most poignant result so far of the military's new policy on showing the solemn ceremony that takes place for every fallen servicemember. For the first time since 1991, cameras are now allowed to photograph and videotape the arrival ceremony with the families’ permission.

I'm glad the Pentagon changed that policy, and I'm glad the president made the trip to Dover. More Americans need to bear witness to the respectful and solemn ritual that honors our war dead. The escort who follows the fallen home. The slow procession of the honor guard. The care taken with the coffin -- and the flag. These duties have been dramatized by Kevin Bacon in the HBO movie "Taking Chance" and were vividly displayed in this 2005 photo from the Rocky Mountain News that was part of its Pulitzer Prize-winning special report, "Final Salute."

War is hell for the thousands of men and women in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so it is for the families they leave behind. More of us need to know what happens after their prayers for their loved one's safe return are met with a heart-stopping knock on the door. Perhaps then more of us will realize that we are indeed at war -- and that war exacts a painful cost.

By Jonathan Capehart  | October 30, 2009; 5:16 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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You know what Capeheart! Yes, the death of a soldier is very tragic, not just for his loved ones, but for the nation as a whole - but, as every grieving family will attest its also supremely heroic even in its tragedy that someone who was part of them gave his or her life for an idea he or she believed in. If one sees it as solely a tragedy and not a heroic sacrifice, then one essentially is reducing the armed forces to yet another labor force yet to be unionized.
An individual sacrifice is tragically heroic, but in the context of a broader war - it is at least understandable, if not individually justifiable. For, there comes a time when all talk is worthless and real men and women need to take a stand against tyranny, oppression and evil, and when they take that stand they dont care if they live or die on that principle.
Using that for politics is just bad. No matter how much Mr Obama sympathizes with slain soldiers' families, he still owes a decision to Afghanistan and the US military serving there what he intends to do.

Posted by: devesh_f10 | October 30, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

The "SPEECH GIVER" is using the same tactics as IRAN, TALK, TALK, TALK, DELAY, DELAY, DELAY. To make this decision. This man and administration, is against BOTH WARS.

The PHOTO-OP at DOVER was DISGUSTING and TASTELESS and was for POLITICAL purposes only. To use a FALLEN HERO'S flag draped coffin to POTRAY a caring commander. Also the Far-LEFT has been screaming for years to make these types of pictures public. They love them to stoke anti-war sentiment.

The "SPEECH GIVER" does one thing PERFECT. He is a master at playing to both sides.

He will announce his decision in a grand show. He will be forcefull(Commander) and sad ( anti-war)

It will be a pittance of what McCyrstal wants and the "SPEECH GIVER" will hope that they do not succede. McCyrstal and the hated military of the Far-Left will be blamed. McCyrstal will be fired(Scapegoat) and we will pull out of Afghanistan.

The "SPEECH GIVER" will always have his PHOTO-OP picture from DOVER. This will be the only time he will have been there!!

The wife and VP's wife all of a sudden have ads on the TV supporting veterans a year into office. Timing,Timing,Timing.

TERM LIMITS NOW!! FAIR TAX NOW!!! and SEND IN the,40,000 troops McCyrstal wants NOW!!!! and let them fight,call in AIR STRIKES and WIN!!!!!!!

Posted by: 79USMC83 | October 31, 2009 6:31 AM | Report abuse

As the father of two soldiers and the father-in-law of another, I found President Obama's display highly respectful. He did not pre-publicize the event and he met with the families completely away from the press. Notice that the only photo was made with the approval of the family.

President Bush never once attended a funeral or went to welcome back even one fallen soldier, marine, sailor, or airman. The look on President Obama's face says a lot. It is the look of a man who feels the cost of war in his soul. It is a cross between anger and sorrow. Hopefully angry that these brave men had to die and sorrow that the it was necessary to pay the cost.

Before someone decides which way to go in Afghanistan I would hope they stop to consider the butcher's bill. In other word is the value of the outcome worth the cost. More than anything else I hope he finally explains what victory is so know if victory is worth the price.

Tell the Army what the successful completion of the mission is and I am sure they can deliver it. Right now I am not sure anyone knows what our goal in Afghanistan is so we can not define victory.

Posted by: w002772 | October 31, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I also think a specific war tax should be raised on everybody to pay for these wars.

Listen to the chicken hawks on the right scream about that one!

Posted by: risejugger | October 31, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Capehart for highlighting the President's discreet act to honor my fellow Soldiers to the attention of your readers. Having made those notifications myself, I must say that those rah-rah- the death of one is worth the cost, believers are operating from an unrealistic, jingoistic delusion that we hear from people who haven't been there, haven't lost a son or husband or daughter or wife. And as important as it is that we understand the ultimate cost of this expensive and dangerous war, the issue of the worrisomely large numbers of marriages and families of the returning Soldiers that are falling apart on a daily basis are not getting the attention it deserves. There is no war worth all the pain and suffering that will continue long after the conflict ends.

Posted by: susanwhiteaker | October 31, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

To79USMC83 and others who want instant action in Afghanistan with no thought behind it and denigrate Obama's paying respectful homage to the war dead please view Let's not forget the deceit and indifference of our previous administration and what is cost this country in money and American lives.

Posted by: deltadelta | November 1, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

" we can not define victory."

I know.

I was angry.

Now I am sad.

You really do not know.

(For a while I thought it a new form of political debate. What is real....)

Perhaps you never will know. But this is not something someone tells you. You have to know for yourself.

Try not to keep the USA from a victory while you sort it out.

Posted by: gary4books | November 2, 2009 5:58 AM | Report abuse

To79USMC83 and others who want instant action in Afghanistan with no thought behind it and denigrate Obama's paying respectful homage to the war dead please view Let's not forget the deceit and indifference of our previous administration and what is cost this country in money and American lives.


Sure did take the "SPEECH GIVER" along time to do this. He has been in office a year!! Why all the theatre? Why call very NEWS organization that he was doing it??

PHOTO-OP PHOTO-OP PHOTO-OP it had nothing to do with paying his respect!!! He knows this WAR and the troop decision leaves him NO choice but to deal with it NOW.

He would just like it to go away and stay out of the news. The JIHADIST are not going anywhere!!!!!

Posted by: 79USMC83 | November 2, 2009 6:48 AM | Report abuse

I used to be one of those "messengers" a couple of decades ago. No, we did not have an Afghanistan or Iraq, these deaths were of the "pedestrian" kind, you know, motorcycle and car accidents, bar fights, etc. However, no matter what the circumstances, the loved ones of those people pretty much showed the same emotions as they do during wartime. We had a very rehearsed process, dress blues, only the facts, etc. but I can tell you that after the initial notification, most of the greiving kin thanked us for taking the time to provide not just the notification, but to do it in such a respectful manner. Given this experience, and the fact that the nation has asked so much of these kids, I do not see a problem with any President, every once in a while, showing some public respect for those who have passed. Normally, it does make a diffference to those being consoled as well as those whose sons and daughters are still in the fray.

Posted by: thinkfirst1 | November 2, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

It was a sign of respect long lacking from our leaders to those giving their lives because of the orders (and mistakes) of the previous administration and this one. Without the draft most of the country is isolated from the horror, the sacrifice and the pain of the dead and injured. I do not like watching movies like Taking Chance or this one (Taking Chance had me crying for hours and very angry) but it is what every citizen who does not serve must do. We can never forget their sacrifices not only in their lives but their time and the strain on their families.

As I understand it once in office POTUS asked his staff to work with Dover to speak to families and when he got an OK from the family and his schedule he would go no matter the time. I feel badly for those who simply hate the POTUS no matter what and cannot look beyond their hatred to the fact that he spent time and effort to thank the families and honor the fallen on his and OUR behalf. The previous administration only dealt with grandiose ideas and schemes not in the reality - and truly what could President Bush tell them? Your child died so my friends at Halliburton could make money?

Every American needs to face the brutality of war -- for only then can we even partly understand what we are asking our fellow citizens to do.

Posted by: Lemon7221 | November 2, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

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