Saluting firmly, his coat jacket whipped by a blustery wind, the commander-in-chief watched as the coffin was borne past him by six army soldiers in combat fatigues. Or, to put it another way, an American President was spending a night without sleep to experience the ultimate human cost of a war that, though he might not wish it, is now his responsibility.
As Wednesday became Thursday Barack Obama went where, in the memory of historians, none of his recent predecessors had been: to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the place where American soldiers killed in foreign wars are brought on their final return home. That night there were 18, all from Afghanistan.
His visit had been kept secret almost until the moment Mr Obama arrived by helicopter from the White House, half an hour after midnight. The small pool of reporters on the 100-mile journey were allowed to witness the “dignified transfer” — as the military call it — of only one of them, Sgt Dale Griffin from Indiana, who died on Tuesday when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan.
First the President walked slowly with an official party up a ramp into the belly of the great, grey C-17 cargo plane. Then the group emerged to form a line of honour, headed by Mr Obama. As he and the other officials saluted, the coffin was carried past into a white van that would take it to the mortuary on the base. The ritual was repeated 17 times before the President finally boarded his helicopter and returned to Washington just before dawn.
For Mr Obama the visit will only have underlined how war and its human cost are the toughest part of his, or any, Presidency. “It is something I think about each and every day,” he said yesterday.