Editor's Notebook: Britain's Emotional Reception for War Dead

In Britain last Wednesday, the papers carried mostly unremarkable fare: the latest on the Russian spy story, a shakeup in British sentencing policies, the Queen's visit to Canada, Scotsman Andy Murray's run at Wimbledon. It was a beautiful summer morning in London, unseasonably warm, hardly a cloud in the sky. I was finishing my breakfast, and finishing the papers, when my eye found an image as arresting as any I'd seen in a while.

The photograph showed a procession of black cars making its way down a narrow street, police officers and soldiers saluting the cars, people on either side lined six deep or so, nearly every one of them standing at attention. The Union Jack was visible in the backs of the cars – the last clue, if you needed one, of what you were looking at. The picture struck me as a particularly compelling portrait of war, and loss.

Seven men had come home in coffins that morning, flown on a Royal Air Force plane from Afghanistan to the RAF base at Lyneham. Then, as has been the custom in Great Britain, a cortege had carried the men past throngs of mourners, a slow and profoundly moving procession that would bring the servicemen to their final resting place. The photograph had been taken in Wootton Bassett, a small market town in northern England where thousands of people had come to pay tribute.

That seven British servicemen had died in a week in Afghanistan was sad, but hardly a shock. June had already proved the deadliest month for NATO in the eight-and-a-half-year-long war, and British losses had recently surpassed 300 dead. But for American eyes – used to seeing only the occasional arrival of coffins at Dover Air Force Base, or distant photographs of a burial at Arlington – the scene at Wooton Bassett was powerful, and haunting.

There were several pictures. People laid flowers atop the hearse cars. British Legion members lowered flags as the cars passed. A woman leaned her head against a hearse window. One close-focus photo showed a flag-wrapped coffin, and a tearful woman staring into the car.

Stirred By a Haunting Photo in Wootton Bassett

Public opinion in Britain has veered against the Afghan war, as it has here. A recent poll found two-thirds of British citizens believe the war is unwinnable. But it is not clear that such scenes as this one in Wootton Bassett are the reason. Indeed, no one interviewed in the articles I read had anything negative to say about the war itself. They expressed only sorrow, and veneration for the soldiers. An RAF veteran named Bill Baldam told The Guardian, "I'm here to pay respects to these young lads. We don't have to do it, but we want to do it."

New Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to stay the course (though he also says British forces must be out of Afghanistan by 2015), and on the day after the seven soldiers came home, Defence Secretary Liam Fox told a Washington audience that Britain and her allies must "see the job through."

Would public opinion change in this country, were fallen soldiers given such a public homecoming? Or would Americans merely pay more attention to the war, and not necessarily change their opinion, or outlook? These are "unknowables," as Donald Rumsfeld used to say. And in any event the country may be paying more attention now, as U.S. casualties mount, a major operation in Kandahar looms, and a new man – David Petraeus -- takes command of the war.

Still, staring at that picture Wednesday – on a sunny morning in London – it was hard not to reflect on the power of a single moment, and a single image, to provoke the mind. And stir the soul.

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