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Gold Star License Plates, For A War Invisible No More

This war has been curiously invisible at home, especially to the many millions of Americans who do not have loved ones in the military. A major downside of the volunteer military is that it allows most of us to live without a direct personal connection to those who choose to defend their country.

The Bush Administration has done all it can think of to keep the emotional impact of the war a good distance away from the hearts and minds of most voters. Unlike past wars, this time there are no photos permitted of the caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base, no presidential appearances at public ceremonies honoring the war dead.

Now, the father of an Army corporal who was killed in Afghanistan in 2002 is on the verge of winning a small victory in the battle to drive home to all of us that we are at war, and that our neighbors are dying in that effort. In memory of his son, Army Ranger Cpl. Matthew Commons, Gregory Commons has spent the past two years pushing the Virginia state bureaucracy to create a Gold Star license plate similar to ones issued in a dozen or so other states. (For example, here's Wisconsin's program. And here's what the Illinois Gold Star plate looks like.)

Finally, last week, Commons got word from the Virginia motor vehicles department that a license plate has been designed and is awaiting final approval. There are plenty of new ways to remember and honor those who fall for their country--Internet guest books, for example. This is one dedicated to Matthew Commons. But as with most things on the web, you kind of have to know what you're looking for to stumble upon that recognition of Commons' sacrifice. The Gold Star license plate sends a broader, more random message--it's decidedly Old Media, but remarkably democratic in its reach.

Greg Commons, who works in the Fairfax County public schools, persuaded Virginia to drop its rule that new license plate designs must be supported and requested by at least 350 motorists before a new kind of plate will be issued. Now, those Virginians who are kin to someone killed in active duty may impress that fact upon the rest of us as they go about their daily routines. Commons expects to receive his license plate in a center-aisle ceremony at the General Assembly in Richmond, probably sometime this month.

Americans disagree on the war, but until we see and feel it as if it were happening on our own shores, we won't really know where we stand, or how deeply we've thought through the mission and the stakes.

By Marc Fisher |  February 7, 2007; 7:34 AM ET
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Can you explain what is an apparently normal delay in designing and approving a license plate by the Virginia DMV has to do with "Bush Administration has done all it can think of to keep the emotional impact of the war a good distance away from the hearts and minds of most voters"? The short answer is nothing, except to provide you with another opportunity to take a gratuitous shot at conservatives.

Posted by: Al | February 7, 2007 9:43 AM

"This war has been curiously invisible at home"

Why then, every time I turn on the evening news, I see stories about the war? I also see numerous newspaper and magazine article concerning the war. Marc, if this is your perception, then your fellow media workers aren't doing a very good job.

Posted by: Huh? | February 7, 2007 9:53 AM

bush loves soccer

Posted by: dc | February 7, 2007 10:05 AM

Fisher explains his statement in the next sentence:

"Unlike past wars, this time there are no photos permitted of the caskets returning to Dover Air Force Base, no presidential appearances at public ceremonies honoring the war dead."

What's the rationale for no photos of the caskets OTHER than to minimize emotional impact?

Posted by: to Al | February 7, 2007 10:09 AM

It's about time something like this was done. Those old United We Stand license plates mean nothing. A Gold Star plate means much.

Posted by: Mister Methane | February 7, 2007 10:17 AM

Al said: The short answer is nothing, except to provide you with another opportunity to take a gratuitous shot at conservatives.

A little paranoid, Al? Even if it were true that Marc was taking a shot at the president, which I don't think he is, it wouldn't necessarily follow that he was taking a shot at conservatives.

There are plenty of conservatives--many of them highly visible--who are not in Bush's camp w/ regard to the war. Thus, in crticizing Bush, one is not necessarily criticizing conservatives.

Posted by: Take it easy | February 7, 2007 10:58 AM


Here's one charter member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy that totally agrees with you on this one; for totally different reasons than motivate you, but I agree. I'll actually raise you one on this--I'd like my Virginia legislators to implement a program to not only issue Gold Star plates to direct relatives of a service man/woman KIA but also to issue Blue Star plates to relatives of service men/women serving in uniform anywhere. Not only that, the fees for those plates (both Gold and Blue) should be waived.

My late Grandmother used to tell about having two Blue Star flags during the Second World War for my Father and Grandfather (who also served in the First War). It's a tradition that needs to be revived.

Posted by: 20th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW | February 7, 2007 11:30 AM

Maybe Marc's description of Bush's role in the absence of Americans' emotional impact of the war can be questioned. But what's beyond question is that, in this war, our sacrifice has consisted mostly of waving a flag and slapping a ribbon on our cars.

The Bush administration has never set the proper tone by asking Americans to sacrifice as a nation to help our soldiers or to strengthen our domestic defenses and intelligence agencies. No urging to save gas, no urging to get the military properly outfitted. None of that.

All we have gotten instead is tax cuts ad nauseum, bloated spending, a homeland security department that's a stone cold joke, domestic wiretapping, the rape of the Constitution and the abandonment of New Orleans.

For starters.

Now the man is in a box of his own making in Iraq. And with two years left to go in office, his irrelevance and impotence is just beginning to match his ineffectiveness.

Posted by: dirrtysw | February 7, 2007 11:33 AM

I forgot: And if a Gold Star plate will help us remember the 3,000+ true sacrifices in this war, and make us think about the sacrifices we need to be making as we go forward, then so much the better. It's a good start.

Posted by: dirrtysw | February 7, 2007 11:35 AM

Compare the tone of these comments with Arkin's blog.

"Choose to defend their country" may not be wholly accurate: may simply have chosen a free college education, or a job when local economy offered nothing; the trip to a combat zone was thrown in for free. It is also increasingly debatable just how/whether their country is being defended: but this is Not the place for that quagmire, er, debate.

"Invisible" was a poorly chosen word. Maybe... alien? Distant? Antiseptic? No draft, no rationing, no civil defense drills, no war bonds... media coverage is the only sign that there is a "war" on.

Posted by: W. Owen | February 7, 2007 12:22 PM

Are some you too stupid to understand that the Bush administration has absolutely nothing to do with the Commonwealth of Virginia's process for approving a license plate, or do you really think that this is part of Karl Rove's master plan to keep war out of the public's mind? My original point was not that we shouldn't be aware of the war and its impacts / costs, but rather that Fisher, as he typically does, throws in a point that is completely unrelated to his topic for no other reason than to slam the Bush administration.
If you want to dispute this contention, please explain what the Bush's administration decision not to allow photos of caskets has to do with Virginia's process of approving license plates.

Posted by: Al | February 7, 2007 1:31 PM

Personally, I would like to see these Gold Star license plates. These honorable men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice so we may be safe here at home.

In addition, I would like to see a license plate that honors the 3000+ people that die every MONTH on our roads and highways.

Or is that subject not allowed here because (1) everybody blindly accepts those deaths, or (2) you haven't figured out a way to blame Bush for those yet.

Once before I made comments that were deemed too to be leaning too far towards the right for their taste and I was rewarded with the following reply:

"Let me guess - you work for (or at least are an active member of) the RNC. You've got their anti-Democratic rhetoric down cold."

So before everybody starts blasting me with more of your highly rational and mature name-calling I add the following personal information:

I am a registered member of the Democratic Party and have been since 1982. Unlike most of my party I am capable of independent thought and vote for the best candidate every election. I am NOT a vote-the-party line brain-dead idiot.

Posted by: SoMD | February 7, 2007 3:11 PM

Al, are you too stupid to see that Marc is saying: (1) the Bush Administration has taken steps to minimize the emotional impact of the war on most voters, but (2) others, such as the father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan as well as people in states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, are working to make the emotional cost more visible.

For my part, I have no close relatives currently serving in the military, but I would still have signed a petition supporting the introduction of these license plates.

Incidently, the blue-star flags (called ribbons) haven not gone away. When I take walks around my neighborhood I pass several homes with these ribbons hanging in the window. Some have two stars on them, which I've been told (by someone whose brother is in the Army) means the family member is serving their second tour.

Posted by: Arlington | February 7, 2007 3:36 PM

To Arlington,

It's illuminating that you're don't cite to Fisher's entry for any support of your point, and that you do not contest that Bush has nothing to do with Virginia's administrative process. By reading his words literally (which Wm Arkin says you shouldn't do), you'd see that what Fisher actually does is to portray this a "battle" and he casts the two sides as the Bush Administration and Mr. Commons. What you're apparently too dense to understand is that there is no battle.Rather, the Bush administration has reasonably chosen to respect the fallen instead of permitting the exploitation America's losses either by the edia through the photos of caskets or by the President through photo-op meetings with the families of the dead. Is it your position that the government should allow the media unlimited access to our dead soldiers and photograph them for whatever commercial and political means they desire? What would your reaction be if the President held a daily photo op with the families of fallen soldiers?

Posted by: Al | February 7, 2007 4:11 PM

What about the tens of thousands of US soldiers who have been grievously injured during the nearly 4 years of war? There's been very little press about them, and they should be as honored and recognized for their sacrifice, even though they're still with us.

Posted by: Steve M | February 7, 2007 4:41 PM

Hey Al,

Why don't you suit up and get your ass over there? Maybe you can become a "star".

Posted by: Dave | February 8, 2007 6:21 AM

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