Best at Burying

In 1996's Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack's character, now a contract killer, returns to Michigan for his ten year high school reunion. Few people, if any, seem to mind his career choice. An ex-girlfriend's father, played by Mitch Ryan, tells him it's a real growth industry; at the reunion, a classmate played by Jeremy Piven fawningly helps Cusack dispose of a fresh kill. And a fellow hit man, played by Dan Aykroyd, strives the entire movie to convince Cusack's character to join a labor union he's established to normalize the heretofore unregulated and haphazard business of contract killing.

My own ten year reunion, to be held next year in Eugene, Ore., will (hopefully) not feature any hit men. It will, however, bring all manner of combat veterans to the courtyards and classrooms of my old school. That weekend, I imagine, the old civilian refrain of "Soldiers knew what they were getting into when they signed up" will ring a bit hollow--not even Charlie Chaplin at his satirical best could have imagined the string of blown calls and botched decisions that have synergized to bring about our current quagmire--and the tenuous division between civilian and military will glow like a fresh scar. Part of Grosse Pointe Blank's bite, of course, is the sheer banality surrounding Cusack's job. Sadly, I fear, America's endeavors in Iraq have made it necessary to treat our fallen soldiers with that same cool detachment. Aykroyd's labor union, ludicrous in 1996, is now representative of an attitude the military must maintain in order to insulate the psyches of its troops from the maddening mission they've been given by President Bush. In 2007, Grosse Pointe Blank's sangfroid no longer serves as a humorous literary device, but instead as a necessary protection against insanity.

There are competitions for just about everything in the military, from the all-important class rankings at West Point and Annapolis, which are updated every twenty-four hours, to the 32 year old U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition, contested annually at Fort Lee, Va. This year, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the unit charged with, among other duties, maintaining discipline and vigilance at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, inaugurated a new competition for honor guards, staged March 20-22 at the Stead Training Facility near Reno. The competition, says the Army News Service, arose out of a need for the National Guard "to standardize the way that state teams render final honors to the people being buried and their families," a need that has been brought tragically to the foreground since the country went to war four years ago.

To my surprise, a high school classmate of mine--and, two wars ago, a teammate on our state championship-winning soccer team--is the best burier of dead soldiers in the nation. The seven-man team from the Oregon Army National Guard took first place in the Reno event, and my Class of '98 teammate, now a staff sergeant and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Oregon honor guard team, shared in the glory. No one, apparently, performs the protocol surrounding a military death better than us Oregonians.

Combat death itself has seen its public perception take a wild ride since the first dead soldiers of the Iraq War began returning home some four years ago. Just before the war started, it was widely reported, the Department of Defense began enforcing what previously had been a loosely followed ban on media coverage of flag draped coffins flying into Dover Air Force Base. Now, though, honoring the dead is no longer something to be hidden for fear of embarrassment; the dead will arrive whether we film them or not.

Instead, the DoD has converted remembrance from a highly personal experience into a source of institutional achievement and excellence, something to be broken down, like bed-making or shoe-polishing, into its component parts and stringently evaluated by experts. With so many troops returning home in coffins, it's now necessary to make sure that Best Practices are followed when remembering and thanking them. (In another symbolic development, the military has admitted to a shortage of the Congressionally mandated "Taps"-playing buglers normally present at military funerals.) Whether pressured by a public perception of callousness or simply by the lengthening list of dead soldiers, then, commemoration has moved to the vital center of Pentagon policy and has brought with it the mock twenty-one gun salutes and the rigid inspections of shined shoes and hatbands of the Reno competition.

"We only have one chance per veteran," my buddy told an enlisted reporter for the National Guard's online news service. "We may do twelve services in one day, and every service has to be perfect."

The lifeless uniformity of dead veterans--referred to as "deceaseds" by the honor guards--provides an opportunity to examine the increasing dehumanization of America's armed services. With more and more frequency, the Pentagon has treated its troops as interchangeable parts devoid of both humanity and personality, an attitude evinced through symbolic gestures, such as the verbal transformation of flesh-and-blood fallen soldiers into adjectives-cum-nouns to be buried a dozen a day, and blatant gestures, such as the requirement of troops to leave home and shuttle back to combat for the third or fourth time. "Fourth tour," after all, presented in two neat syllables, can never hope to do justice to the just-lengthened-to-fifteen months in Iraq it actually entails. The abstract is always easier for us civilian bystanders to swallow than is the fleshy and real.

Back in Reno, honor guard soldiers were rated on every aspect of honor protocol, including the manual transport of urns and caskets from hearse to ground, the proper M-14 rifle salute, and the regulation method of presenting a folded American flag to a deceased's next-of-kin. Participants also completed a sixty-question exam that covered the history of military memorializing and a 3:30 a.m. exercise in removing mock caskets filled with sandbags from a C-130 cargo plane in frigid, mountain conditions.

After the results of the competition were announced, members of the Oregon guard exulted. "It means the world to them," my friend told the National Guard Bureau. "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones."

With still flimsier casus belli emanating from Washington, though, and more "friends' headstones" arriving in military cemeteries each day, victory in the honor competition is perhaps Pyrrhic at best, tasteless at worst, but firmly--even for those deceased given a perfect burial by the Oregon guard--tragic. There's little uniformity and banality involved when an Oregonian soldier dies in the desert for no reason--and, for me, even less when he's clinically buried at Willamette National Cemetery by my erstwhile soccer-playing friend.