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Obama Should Follow Canada in Honoring War Dead

February 19, 2009

Canadians on Thursday gave Barack Obama a warm welcome in his foreign trip as President. But while real issues concerning trade and the future Canadian combat role in Afghanistan remain, the most difficult discussions between President Obama and Prime Minister Harper will likely wait for another time. But in one area – whether the United States should publicly welcome home its fallen soldiers - President Obama should move quickly to follow the Canadian example.
The question of whether he would reverse the Bush policy of preventing the American people from viewing images and video footage of the returning coffins of war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan came up during President Obama's February 9th press conference. While Obama responded "we are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense," Secretary Robert Gates noted the next day:

"From a personal standpoint, I think, if the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better. I'm pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be."

For answers, President Obama and Secretary Gates need look no further than to our neighbor to the north.

Unlike their American counterparts denied by their government, fallen Canadian soldiers are publicly welcomed home by their grieving countrymen. As NBC News detailed last November for Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day in Canada), Canadians take to the overpasses of Route 401 - the Highway of Heroes - to honor their dead on their final ride from the airport in Ontario (video here). "Each time a Canadian soldier dies in Afghanistan fighting alongside Americans in the war on terror," noted correspondent Kevin Tibbles, "people simply gather on the bridges out of respect." As he described the scenes he witnessed:

"I noticed a few people on the overpass standing with flags.
On the next bridge, same thing.
Then there was a bridge with a fire truck on it, and more flags, and more people. Essentially I had driven, I dunno...50 or 60 miles...and there were people gathered on every single bridge.
Fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, pickups, sedans...moms, dads, the elderly, kids."

To be sure, the toll for Canadians and Americans alike has been great. In December, Canada reached the grim milestone of 100 service personnel killed in Afghanistan. With 2,500 troops stationed in violent Kandahar province, Canadian forces have seen absorbed some of the most brutal attacks of the intensifying conflict. By way of context, Americans currently make up 32,000 of the 53,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. By early December, 556 Americans had been killed in the Afghan conflict, including 148 in 2008 alone.
While President Obama announced this week the U.S. will increase its footprint in Afghanistan by 17,000 troops this year, the Canadian parliament already voted to wind down its combat role by 2011. Whether and
will proceed, and what role the nation's NATO allies will play in supplying more troops and resources, remains an open issue on both sides of the border.
What shouldn't be an issue is how our fallen soldiers are welcomed home.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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