Three American flags draped the coffins lying on the cargo floor of my C-17. It was only three hours earlier that I had received a phone call informing me that my crew was to fly from Europe to America; no word was spoken about the cargo that would be on-board. I had just bounded up the stairs into the airplane, coffee still in hand, to begin the pre-flight inspections when I was confronted by the coffins. I stopped short. All that separated me from the dead bodies of the American soldiers was the fabric of a flag and the steel wall of the coffin. I was practically in the presence of death and felt a cold shudder work itself through my body as my mind futilely evaded the urgent images of the lifeless bodies hidden behind the flag of our country. The fabric of a flag and the steel of a coffin are miserable talismans in the presence of death and only barely serve to keep the horror and terror of the future of all men from rising to the surface of the mind and incapacitating the living. Yet they did their office and enabled me to pass by the coffins and climb the steps to the cockpit to accomplish my pre-flight duties, pushing questions about the histories of the deceased to the corners of my consciousness until they would rise unbidden, no longer enchanted by the magic of the flag and coffin.
Cruising at 30,000 feet above the frigid North Atlantic Ocean in the dead of night and carrying three slain soldiers to their final resting place forces thought upon even the most simple and uncurious mind. The knowledge that three human beings’ dead bodies rested on the floor of my airplane urged a variety of images and questions upon me: simple questions like what their names were or what they looked like, sober questions like why they died and for what purpose, sad questions like what their families would do without them and who would play with their children as only a father can. Meanwhile, my aircraft sped on through the night towards its destination to deliver its somber cargo into the safekeeping of American soil.
We touched down a few hours after sunrise on the East Coast and I pushed the thought of the corpses jostling in their steely beds from my mind as I taxied the aircraft onto the parking ramp. After shutting down the engines, we were met by a small entourage from the military office of mortuary affairs and briefed on our duties. The coffins were to be moved from the aircraft to a morgue vehicle and transported to the funeral home and then to their final resting place in the warm earth. As the plans for the ceremonial transfer were explained, I couldn’t stop thinking how odd it was that we were conducting a ceremony for nobody. Every person present at the ceremony bore no relation to the deceased; none of us knew their names or faces, none of us knew their pasts or their stories. Nevertheless, a general and other commanding officers would be on hand, taking time out of their busy schedules to stand at attention and then salute as three caskets were carried 30 yards from an airplane to a van. A chaplain was present and prayed for each of the fallen, though not by name, and asked God’s blessing on their families. The crew stood at attention behind the line of coffins and simply watched as an honor guard lifted the steel and fabric boxes and moved them slowly to the hearse.
What was the reason for all this pomp and ceremony for nobody? Why the respect paid, in such painstaking detail, to the lifeless bodies of three unknown soldiers? A team of mortuary affairs officials first removed and replaced the flags on the coffins, carefully folding and creasing each to lie crisply over the metal box. A team of pallbearers arrived in sharp military dress, marching, stopping, bending, lifting and marching again in unison. Hours of practice under-girded their precision. A chaplain left his morning duties to pray for three men he never knew and for their families and friends. The master of ceremonies carefully inspected my uniform and the uniforms of the men on my crew and rehearsed our part in the play, “Stand here, no….move a hair to the left, yes, stop. Okay, you’ll stand here and salute on my command. It will be a slow salute, taking three seconds to render. Yes, yes, just like that. Try it again. Okay. Now I need you to move a little bit to your right. Thank you, yes,” and on and on it went.
As the preparations continued, I wondered why nobody had bothered to tell these officials that the military, with all its ceremony and respect for the dead, was hopelessly antiquated, out of touch—that the great race of Western men had long ago concluded that men are nothing but machines, that we had risen from a causally-determined ancestry of chimps and amoebas and had only our own creative delusions to thank for our sense of dignity and honor, and that our bodies, once devoid of life, were nothing but lumps of molecular waste ready to complete their part in the eternal circle of life and death. It was humorous, almost, to see the great respect being shown to dead bodies by men whose culture and education taught them that those bodies had no more value or meaning than a discarded candy wrapper or a pebble in the bottom of a stream.
It’s not usual, these days, to honor the military as a repository of truth or culture; we are much more likely to think of our soldiers in terms of the people they kill, the destruction they wreak, and the havoc they cause around the world. However, standing at the head of the three caskets that I had flown across the sea, it dawned on me that the military is, in this regard at least, a conserving force in our society demanding that we reconsider the conclusions of our scientific materialism. Perhaps it is better to trust the instincts and conclusions of men who deal in life and death on a daily basis when it comes to the meaning and value of human bodies. Perhaps, paradoxical though it may seem, it is only those men whose business it is to kill men who can understand something fundamental about the worth and value of human life and its relation to the body.
As the warm sunshine filled the cargo hold and bathed the coffins in light, the command came sharp and clear, “Tench-hut. Present, arms.” The coffins were carried out and I was filled with a sense of reverence for the bodies I had never seen, lying as they were, behind the protective mask of flag and steel. But they were there, beneath the surface and they had once housed the “immortal horrors” or the “eternal splendours” of human souls. It was fitting that I should render them a salute as they moved to their final resting place. Fallen bodies, like fallen men, are images still of God Himself.