Former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who as a Marine pilot had flown 59 combat missions during World War II and an additional 90 missions in Korea — where in air-to-air combat during that war’s last nine days alone he had shot down three Soviet MiG fighter planes — knew firsthand the suffering of war. So the plain words Glenn spoke in the Senate on Jan. 22, 1997, about what he called “the Dover test” are worth recalling: “It’s easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly. And it’s not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through Dover, Delaware.”
The most momentous of national decisions — to send U.S. citizens into combat — ought to first be subjected to the Dover test, which according to retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, begins with whether “the American public (is) prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets.”
The scene, so familiar to older generations, where the military pallbearers in their white gloves so respectfully carry the caskets bearing the human remains of the fallen — and where the families and loved ones mourned, but were also comforted by the ceremonial care — had been banned from public view since 1991 until the Obama administration changed the policy to allow families to decide whether the solemn occasion could be covered by the media.
The scene at Dover is no ordinary picture. No, Dover is truly the portrait of sacrifice and of human loss. Statistics do not bleed. Real sons and real fathers — and, yes, real sisters — bleed. And they die. However any of us might feel about the wisdom of the decision to go to war or of how that war has been waged, all of us need to appreciate — and to share — the grief and pain of the human cost of war.
The president of the United States is not just the commander in chief. The president is also the comforter in chief. That is what President Ronald Reagan was when, after 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, were killed by a terrorist attack on their Beirut barracks, he went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to honor those killed, to comfort those who survived and to give voice to the national grief. War’s endless expense in human suffering ought not to be shielded from either public view or from public responsibility.
Obama, during his winning campaign, promised to make Washington more “transparent” and more “accountable.” At 4 a.m. Oct. 29, as he stood silently by as six soldiers carried the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., back to U.S. soil and to those who mourned him, Obama made both himself, and the national government he leads, more responsible and made the reality of war more transparent.
At Dover, he personally met with and consoled — in their time of profound sorrow — the families of 18 fallen Americans. No form letter or phone call. Just human being to human being.
As Glenn said: “It’s easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly. And it’s not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through Dover, Delaware.”
Obama, by choosing the “not quite so easy” path, has earned his nation’s thanks.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.