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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
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The President Takes the Dover Test


Former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who as a Marine pilot had flown 59 combat missions during World War II and an additional 90 missions in Korea — where in air-to-air combat during that war's last nine days, alone, he had shot down three Soviet MiG fighter planes — knew firsthand the suffering of war. So the plain words John Glenn spoke in the Senate on Jan. 22, 1997, about what he called "the Dover test" are worth recalling: "It's easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly. And it's not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through Dover, Delaware."

Waiting until after midnight to leave the White House, President Barack Obama traveled to Delaware, and there in the pre-dawn darkness on Oct. 29, 2009, he personally took "the Dover test."

The most momentous of national decisions — to send American citizens into combat — ought to first be subjected to the Dover test, which according to former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton, begins with whether "the American public (is) prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets."

The scene, so familiar to older generations, where the military pallbearers in their white gloves so respectfully carry the caskets bearing the human remains of the fallen — and where the families and loved ones mourned, but were also comforted by the ceremonial care — had been banned from public view since 1991 until the Obama administration changed the policy to allow families to decide whether the solemn occasion could be covered.

The scene at Dover is no ordinary picture. No, Dover is truly the portrait of sacrifice and of human loss.

Statistics do not bleed. Real sons and real fathers — and, yes, real sisters — bleed. And they die. However any of us might feel about the wisdom of the decision to go to war or of how that war has been waged, all of us need to appreciate — and to share — the grief and pain of the human cost of war.

The president of the United States is not just the commander in chief. The president is also the comforter in chief. That is what President Ronald Reagan was when, after 241 American servicemen, mostly U.S. Marines, were killed by a terrorist attack on their Beirut barracks, he went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to honor those killed, to comfort those who survived and to give voice to the national grief. War's endless expense in human suffering ought not to be shielded from either public view or from public responsibility.

President Obama, during his winning campaign, promised to make Washington more "transparent" and more "accountable." At 4 a.m. on Oct. 29, as he stood silently by as six soldiers carried the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., back to American soil and to those who mourned him, President Obama made both himself, and the national government he leads, more responsible and made the reality of war more transparent.

At Dover, he personally met with and consoled — in their time of profound sorrow — the families of 18 fallen Americans. No form letter or phone call. Just human being to human being.

As John Glenn said: "It's easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly. And it's not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming back through Dover, Delaware." Barack Obama, by choosing the "not quite so easy" path, has earned his nation's thanks.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




2 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;...I don't need glasses to see the lot of those politicians who sabre rattle with ease, and without conscience, as mass murderers... Maybe they do not kill enough personally to rank as mass murderers...Maybe those killers are nice people, charming, and sociable...Yet, it takes a special skill to calculate the value of a human life in terms of individual, and political gain... We have all lost people...I have lost people, but I cannot imagine the lives of my loved ones distilled into so much gain and investment... Government cowers behind a shield of police, and from that safety plays with the lives of citizens as though pawn and puppets... Does anyone ever have the nerve to ask those people what long term goal of ours is served by the enmity of more and more of the worlds population... The foreign poor are not shylocks, but they bleed as us and feel the indignity of dishonor and fear... Do we want to steel their hatred with a cruel resolve??? In war, as in every other endeavor we must show mercy to deserve mercy... Where is the mercy in making a battle field of people's homes and towns; and where is the mercy in sending our military, our children to die only to feed the hatred and frustration of humanity??? Shouldn't peace always be our goal; and shouldn't war always be the final choice??? The world presumes of the last Mr. Bush that he was a fool... He had the support of many fools who were sold on the myth of American virtue and invincibility... Well; the fact is that many things we do not do we should not do...Offensive wars on the far side of the world are prohibitively expensive...That group who would buy bullets for offense at the expense of every good the government is supposed to secure are paying for misery today at the price of calamity tomorrow... With our wealth wasted, with our children murdered for political gain, and the world hating us for no good reason we must now pile body upon body and fortune upon fortune to buy no better than the moment offers... Why not dance down a dark alley with a mugger??? We are not one bit better off counting on the kindness of a goverrnment that we cannot govern, that will build up the fear of the people and capitalize on the general ignorance...I do not trust anyone who does not value life as greater than gold... I do not trust anyone who talks easily of death and killing...I do not trust those who would capitalize on our pain to breed international injustice... We need justice in this country before we will ever be able to export justice...Until then, we should mind our own business, and stand to our defense...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Oct 31, 2009 4:55 AM
Although a far sight closer to taking responsibility than Bush ever took, President Obama's trip to Dover is still a very small and insignificant gesture. Like Mr Sweeny above, I believe the only true test of the President's taking of responsibility will be to assess the validity of this conflict then respond by bringing our killing machines home if it is shown (as I believe it will) that the war has no validity. I applaud the President's silent salute, but will save my standing ovation for his greeting our living heroes as they return to their loved ones.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Nov 1, 2009 7:50 AM
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