March/April 2004 Issue

It's a sight I'll never forget—15 flag-draped coffins laid out on the concrete floor of a vast hangar at Dover Air Force Base, the military's largest mortuary. This was in 1983, and my newspaper had given me the somber assignment of covering the arrival of the remains of U.S. Marines killed in Beirut. The photographs and film of those coffins in their stark, airy tomb appeared in every paper and on the evening news; a week later, President Reagan traveled to Camp Lejeune to deliver a moving tribute to the dead.

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There have been no images of the coffins coming home from Iraq. The Pentagon made sure of that last March, on the eve of the war, when it issued a directive prohibiting media coverage of "deceased military personnel" at any military bases. And there have been no presidential tributes; unlike his predecessors, President Bush has not attended any memorial or funerals for soldiers killed in action during his presidency. But still the dead keep coming home—513 killed in the Iraq war by late January, 375 of them since the president declared that the war was over.

And the wounded keep coming home, too–more than 2,500 young men and women wounded in action. Many have suffered catastrophic injuries; flak jackets and bulletproof helmets mean that more soldiers now survive land mine or mortar shell explosions, but lose their arms or legs or sustain disfiguring facial wounds. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., reports treating 61 amputees from Iraq, 11 of them missing multiple limbs. Among them was Alan Jermaine Lewis, one of the American wounded whose portraits by photographer Nina Berman appear in this issue ("The Damage Done"). Lewis told Berman he'd been used to dealing with death; he'd grown up in a tough Chicago neighborhood where his sister and father had been killed by street violence. But nothing could have prepared Lewis for what happened to him: he lost both legs after his Humvee hit a land mine in Baghdad. At the age of 23, he's still glad he served in the Army, he says, for it enabled him to live on his own for a couple of years. As a private first class, he would have been earning $17,946 a year, plus "imminent danger pay" while in Iraq. Not much, but better than an entry-level job at Wal-Mart or McDonald's. "It was a guaranteed paycheck twice a month," one wounded soldier told the New York Times after returning home. "There's not that kind of guarantee anywhere else these days."

As Verlyn Klinkenborg points out in his perceptive essay accompanying Berman's photos, the term "hero" has been so overused since 9/11 that it has begun to lose its meaning. But no one can deny the heroism of these soldiers, many of whom clearly realize that the reasons their president gave for sending them to Iraq were, as one put it, "bogus." In honoring their sacrifice, we must make certain that no American president will ever do that again.

Roger Cohn