Soldiers' Sacrifice Needs Recognition

Commentator Leroy Sievers welcomes the Pentagon's decision to release photographs of U.S. military coffins from Iraq. He says Americans need to see the images of soldiers who have lost their lives, and acknowledge the sacrifice, regardless of their views on the war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Bush administration is making the best of Iraq's failure to meet a deadline for a constitution. In a written statement, President Bush applauded the decision to keep working on a compromise. Iraq's parliament gave negotiators an extra week to work out questions like women's rights, the power of different regions and the role of Islam. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters yesterday that the Iraqis need a little more time to work out the difficulties.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): We are witnessing democracy at work in Iraq. The new constitution will be the most important document in the history of the new Iraq. We're confident that they will complete this process and continue on the path toward elections for a permanent government at the end of the year.

INSKEEP: Now since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 1,800 American troops have died. Polls indicate that public support for the war is waning. Commentator Leroy Sievers, a former executive producer of "Nightline," says these troops should not die in vain.

LEROY SIEVERS:

When 14 Marines were killed in one attack in Iraq recently, there were pictures of the wreckage of their armored vehicle all over the papers and on television. That many deaths in one incident made it news. But in most cases, soldiers in Iraq die anonymously. There are no banner headlines, no tape on the news that night. Maybe a picture in the hometown paper. And those pictures have a heartbreaking similarity: men or women, no longer only the young, usually wearing their dress uniforms, military graduation pictures most often, taken to commemorate the day they became full-fledged soldiers or Marines or sailors.

There are other pictures we almost never see: flag-draped coffins flown back to the US, sent to towns and cities all over America for burial. Those coffins are treated with honor when they arrive home for the last time, but until now the Pentagon felt they should not be seen by the public. Privacy was one of the official reasons given, protecting identities.

Now the Pentagon has settled a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and finally agreed to release pictures of the coffins coming home. It's about time. But the Pentagon was wrong to try to hide those images for so long, and the Defense Department should stop restricting coverage of military funerals, too. After all, it's our flag that drapes those coffins, not the flag of those who favor the war or those who oppose it. Those who have died in that war are beyond politics, beyond taking sides.

Years ago, I interviewed the parents of a young American soldier who'd been killed in Somalia. That was a futile military action if ever there was one. It took me until the very end of the interview to get up enough courage to ask, `Did your son die in vain?' They didn't hesitate. Their answer was, `No, of course not. He was serving his country. He was doing what he thought was right.'

The pain and pride of so much sacrifice is not something that needs to be hidden away. Most Americans don't know anyone serving in Iraq, probably don't know their families either, but it's important that those of us back home acknowledge the casualties, that we look at those images no matter how heartbreaking. It's even important for us to see the tears of families who've lost someone, because those deaths belong to all of us, whether we like it or not.

When we finally do see those pictures of the flag-draped coffins, we need to pay attention, not let them just fade into the background noise of the war. When we lie down to go to sleep each night, we need to remember that on the other side of the world, there are soldiers waking up to another day of dirt, fatigue, boredom and terror, not knowing if today will be their last day alive.

Support the war or oppose it, that's a matter of individual conscience. But indifference? That's unconscionable.

INSKEEP: Those were the comments of Leroy Sievers, a journalist based in Washington.

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