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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Time to take the Dover test

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- At Harvard on January 19, 2000, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton provided a valuable standard, both to determine whether the United States ought to send the nation's warriors into combat and to enlist "the support of the American people as well as the Congress" needed to sustain that involvement. In Shelton's judgment, such a grave decision :

"(M)ust be subjected to what I call the 'Dover test.' Is the American public prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware -- which is a point entry for our Armed Forces?

This is an issue, I think, that should be raised early on. It should be discussed, and it should be decided by our political leadership before any operation begins."

In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration chose instead to duck Shelton's "Dover test." The scene so familiar to older Americans -- of the military honor guard in white gloves, respectfully accompanying from the aircraft to the waiting loved ones the remains of the fallen warrior in the coffin covered by Old Glory, often with a military band offering an appropriately solemn piece -- was simply banned. George W. Bush's war against Iraq could not flunk the Dover test because there would be no Dover test.

One of the most enduring criticisms from Bush's fellow conservatives of those Americans, especially liberals, who opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam was that , as a consequence of that vocal opposition, no parades or bands or celebrations were held to honor and welcome American veterans returning from that war.

Today's Bush press blackout deprives the deceased hero and his -- yes, or her -- family of that most special moment and indelible memory when a grateful nation expresses its condolences and its respect.

The president of the United States is not simply the commander in chief. He is also be the comforter in chief. Which is exactly what President Ronald Reagan was on January 28, 1986, after the shocking explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the loss of its crew when , quoting from a sonnet written by World War II pilot John Magee, he said: "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them , this morning, as they prepared for their journey and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

After 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, were killed in a terrorist attack on their Beirut barracks, Reagan went to Camp Lejeune not simply to console the grieving, though console them he did, but to do what President Bill Clinton would later do so memorably after the deadly attack on the USS Cole and the murder of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Nairobi -- to give voice to the national sense of grief and offer meaning to the ultimate sacrifices made.

Where is the outrage on the part of the press? Are we lapdogs? The administration in full spin control insists that the reality on the ground in Iraq is much more positive than the press reports. Yet the administration denies reality at home -- the reality of the recent heroism of this nation's fallen sons and daughters.

By official government policy,. there is no band to welcome them home. No honor guard to present the folded flag to their widow and orphan, to make certain the family knows that their loss is also their country's loss, that they do not weep alone. It is a cruel and ugly policy that robs the patriot of the glory and public honor he has earned and deserves.

The time is long past in 2003 to take the Dover test.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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