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.
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