Nazi salutes and Weimar pastiche. Debates laden with references to Mossadegh, Allende, Cambodia, and the Sandinistas. Gaffes about Nancy Reagan. Discussions of George Wallace. Decades-old legislation. Have we ever had a presidential campaign so saturated in history, not just of the US but of other parts of the world? I feel like we're watching history unspool, in a completely chaotic, unedited way. It's as if we're at one of those sumptuous and feverish Viennese balls from the turn of the century, and every ghost from empires past has shown up to dance. What's going on? Joseph Roth, where are you?
Recently, President Bush has been criticized for failing to attend the funerals of the soldiers killed in Iraq. Maureen Dowd noted sarcastically in a recent NYT column that the president had not even bothered to attend the funeral of Specialist Darryl Dent, a "21-year-old National Guard officer from Washington who died outside Baghdad in late August when a bomb struck his truck while he was delivering mail to troops," though the service took place at a church just "three miles from the White House."
Have presidents in the past attended the funerals of soldiers who died in combat? Have they taken note of the deaths of U.S. soldiers? The record is mixed, as can be seen below. It would appear that few presidents have ever actually attended military funerals, though many used the bully pulpit to draw attention to lives lost in the service of their country.
Maureen Dowd also criticized the president for refusing to allow the media to take pictures of the coffins of slain soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base. During the first Iraq war a similar ban was in effect.
More Americans lost their lives in war during the administration of Abraham Lincoln than under any other president. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln took note of the dead in the most famous speech in American history, the Gettysburg address: "In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Two months before Pearl Harbor, the Nazis attacked the USS Kearny. In a radio address FDR briefly referred to the casualties, noting that"Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis." Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt noted in a radio address: "The casualty lists of soldiers will undoubtedly be large. I deeply feel the anxiety of all families of the men in our armed forces and the relatives of the people in cities which have been bombed."
Lyndon Baines Johnson
According to the Johnson Library, LBJ attended two funerals for soldiers who died during the Vietnam War. The first funeral was for Captain Albert Smith, son of White House correspondent Merriman Smith, which was held February 28, 1966. The second was for Major General Keith R. Ware, held September 17, 1968. LBJ had met Ware while visiting Vietnam.
Richard Nixon does not appear to have attended the funerals of any soldiers killed in Vietnam. He did award posthumous medals of honor to the families of several soldiers on 22 April 1971 and on several other occasions. On Veterans day in 1971 he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. In 1973 he met with the family of Colonel William Nolde after the colonel was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Colonel Nolde was killed on January 27th, the night before the cease-fire went into effect.
According to the New York Times, Jimmy Carter attended a memorial service for the soldiers killed in the failed rescue of America hostages in Iran in 1980.
Ronald Reagan attended memorial services on several occasions for American soldiers. In 1983 he attended a service at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in connection with the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which cost the lives of 241 people. In 1987 he attended a service at Mayport Naval Station in Florida for the sailors killed on the USS Stark.
George H.W. Bush
President George Herbert Walker Bush does not appear to have attended any funerals for American soldiers. (The NYT, citing Marlin Fitzwater as a source, indicated that the president did attend several such funerals. But no details were provided.)
Bill Clinton attended a service in October 2000 in memory of the 17 sailors killed in the attack on the USS Cole.
After the terrorist bombing the Murrah building in downtown Oklahoma City he publicly grieved with the families of the victims at an event that was regarded at the time as a turning point in his presidency.
Like many other presidents he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
● Elisabeth Bumiller, Issue for Bush: How to Speak of Casualties?
● Maureen Dowd, Death Be Not Proud
● Tim Harper, The Bush Administration Is Concealing the Bodies of Soldiers Killed in Iraq
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