Civil Religion is about nothing if it is not about those who have died in the service of the nation. The battlefields where they fell are their shrines, and there are war memorials large and small in every city and town and village from Washington, DC on down. And so there is something disreputable about the peekaboo game we have of late been playing with the coffins of the fallen as they arrive home, flag-draped, from Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy since the first Iraq war has to keep the news media from showing them; the reason proferred, to protect the privacy of the families. But of course the families’ privacy could easily be assured while permitting photos of the visually indistinguishable caskets.
The more plausible reason is to screen the American people–the devotees of the civil religion–from visual tokens of the dying that is taking place in their name, lest they question the policies that put the dead in harm’s way. As Katharine Q. Seeley notes in her piece in todays NYT, in Britain and Canada not only are the arrival ceremonies photographed, but there are also honorary funeral processions during which cameras follow the corteges for all to see. Given how much more controversial the present wars have been in those countries than in the U.S., it is impressive that they have been prepared to do so. Here, for all the lip service paid to the troops’ sacrifice, the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations have preferred out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Will Obama do the same?