Four years ago, I castigated the Bush Administration on this blog for what seemed a public lack of regret over the mounting war losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush visited families in private, but unlike Presidents Reagan, Clinton and his own father, he refused to attend solemn rites for actual soldiers - like standing at an Air Force base as the remains of sons and daughters fighting America's wars are brought home. Those posts stirred a bit of controversy; one compared our official disdain for national public mourning to the memorial for a slain Italian security officer. Perhaps because I'm headed for Italy tomorrow, those images came back at me. More likely: President Obama's overnight visit to Dover Air Force Base to stand at attention as the bodies of 18 Americans were carried from a transport plane, and to comfort the soldiers' families and comrades.
Without doubt, the President's timing carries real policy import; he is on the verge of a major decision on the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, a seemingly endless battle to stem what seems unstemmable. Yet the image of President Obama standing on the tarmac at Dover is important, whatever his strategic decision. That is because he is not a figurative commander-in-chief, a mere head of state who leaves the conduct of American military action to the generals. No, he - and every president - is the literal commander, the immediate supervisor of the vast defense establishment. Ever since President Washington took the field to crush the Whiskey Rebellion, American President's have run the military directly. Nowadays, Presidents can direct the virtual battlefield from the highly-wired command center under the White House. Indeed, modern Presidents are often called upon to give the order to kill enemy combatants.
For the President to be seen publicly mourning his own comrades-in-arms - however tenuous and thinly constitutional that bond sometimes feels - is ethically vital. As their commander, he is responsible for their actions and must bear the burden for their deaths. But symbolically, he is also a direct link to the people who elected him - and who he is sworn to protect. When he stands before the bodies of fallen soldiers, he represents us. For whether or not we support or oppose this war, or other wars, the President and his soldiers act in our names.
Bush's refusal to be seen near the caskets of dead soldiers, and his Administration's ban on photographs of those returning remains, willfully broke that link. I think it attempted to remove Americans from responsibility for the war - to make it seem like a distant event. And to hush up the cost.
Whatever you think of President Obama's foreign policy, you cannot argue that he turns a blind eye to the terrible price of war. I understand that his visit was symbolic. But in the middle of the night in Dover, the President walked the walk.