As of this posting there have been 3,013 U.S. military casualties in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That is three thousand and thirteen indistinguishable, flag-draped coffins. Three thousand and thirteen individual bodies. And the question is, how should we honor and mourn their sacrifice, as individuals or as faceless members of a collectivity? The issue came to a head at Fort Lewis, Washington this past week, where the base commander considered doing away with the practice of individual services for each death in lieu of a collective monthly memorial. The rationale was logistical, if not a little bit ironic: there are just too many deaths coming out of the war to honor and remember each individual. The protest from soldier’s families and veterans was palpable and pronounced. The policy was subsequently revised to hold weekly memorials, a compromise which surely satisfies no one.
The photograph above was featured with the original New York Times story – although it was subordinated after a few hours and replaced on the mast with a picture of an honor guard performing a rifle salute – and then repeated the next day in a story reporting the compromise. And as poignant as it is, it nonetheless underscores a very real problem: this is not WWII, where an entire generation sacrificed and fought and died, and thus could be memorialized in the collective – “the greatest generation.” Nor is it Vietnam, where those who fought and died became the scapegoats for the nation’s sins and could only be memorialized after great public controversy, and at that by splitting the difference between the collective and individual trauma of the war in a monument that honored both at once, with names inscribed in black granite. Rather, it is a war being fought in the shadow of our dueling memories of WWII and Vietnam, by men and women who are individuals first and soldiers second (and only incidentally so). We have yet to come to terms with this difference, or the symbolic register in which it is being experienced and enacted, and yet, as this image hints, it is a difference that will no doubt animate a unique mode of memorium, one that in the end, perhaps, will need to put the individual face in front of the flag.
Photo Credits: Kevin P. Casey/New York Times