In the aftermath of the First World War, many of the belligerent nations instituted memorials to the Unknown Soldier. First in France, Britain and Italy – then others – governments laid to rest the remains of a soldier that could not be identified. It symbolized the futility and terribleness of modern war that left so many of the dead lost to the churning trenches of European battlefields. The Unknown Soldier, though still familiar to us today, is a symbol of a time increasingly distant from contemporary commemoration.
Tombs of the Unknown Soldier were created after the First World War as nations sought ways to commemorate the war without the trappings of politics yet still come to terms with the loss of so many lives. In contrast to the celebrations that feted the war’s end, ceremonies dedicated to the fallen emphasized the unity of all combatants. Commemorating the common soldier, even with an empty tomb, was not a new practice, but enshrining memorials to the “unknown soldier” was an act entrenched in the context of the post-war era. The immensity of lives lost during the Great War and the manner of their loss from artillery or machine gun fire was unlike anything in the history of warfare. A monument that was explicitly anonymous was partially an acknowledgement that the weapons and experience of modern trench warfare had reduced the individual to a faceless soldier. In remembering the dehumanization of war, the Unknown Soldier reminded nations that the suffering of the battlefield was universal and transcendent.
The original idea to commemorate an Unknown Soldier appeared independently in Great Britain, France, and Italy. The French and British proposed burying an anonymous soldier as a tribute to the fallen in 1916. During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, British chaplain Father David Railton encountered a nameless British soldier buried in a tomb near Armentières. The simple white cross that marked the grave touched Railton, and he suggested that an anonymous British soldier be returned home for burial. In France, veteran of the Franco-Prussian War Francis Simon proposed burying an anonymous soldier as a symbol of the French nation in a November 1916 speech. In 1920, Italian veteran Giulio Douhet campaigned for a memorial to the unknown soldier in his veterans’ newspaper, Il Douvere. Each of these individual suggestions precede government proposals, and though there’s little direct connection in the British and French cases, the Douhet’s suggestion spurred action in Italy.
The Tomb to the Unknown Soldier in these countries, and the others that followed suit, differed from other ways of remembering the dead. Unlike some memorials, it did not emphasize the individual heroism of soldiers, but made the anonymous nature of the soldier heroic. As Laura Wittman explains in her book, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body, the anonymity of the memorials reflected the nature of trench warfare. Officers and privates alike faced the same unforgiving death from a distant opponent behind a gun, mired in the same mud, both forced to abandon their comrades in the hail of shellfire on the field of battle. The commonality of the war’s dehumanizing experience was evoked by the unknown soldier who could represent any of the dead. Wittman writes that though historians can trace individual proposals for Unknown Soldier memorials, governments ultimately created them in reaction to public and soldier demands. They wanted to remember the war as it was for them, not the war fabricated for the home front behind the frontlines.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remained a powerful memorial for nations in the decades afterwards. It became a site of memory, to use Pierre Nora’s term, where the public gathered to remember those lost during the Great War and other conflicts. While most nations did not create multiple tombs, but instead updated the war years commemorated, the United States created a new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for each major conflict of the 20th century. The Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War each have their own tombs. The unknown Vietnam veteran has elicited much controversy however, as its selection and new technologies raise questions about the plausibility of an “unknown soldier.”
In 1973, Congress passed the National Cemeteries Act and directed efforts to renovate the Tomb of the Unknowns in the Arlington National Cemetery as well as to find an unidentified set of remains for the Vietnam tomb. Renovation work finished in 1975, but no remains had been found and the Vietnam portion of the memorial was covered in tile and concealed. Some veterans took the crypt’s vacancy as a mark of the war’s divisive place in American society and an insult to its soldiers. Over the next ten years, calls for an Unknown Soldier tomb continued. The completion of the Vietnam Memorial by Maya Lin was eventually well received as a tribute to the war’s victims (the soldiers themselves), but the lack of any positive comment on the nature of the war left some unsatisfied.
President Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration provided their own response in the early 1980s by intensifying the search for remains to place in the Tomb of the Unknowns. The government told the Department of Defence’s Joint Casualty Resolution Center and its forensic lab, the Central Identification Laboratory, that they had to select one set of remains that could not be identified, but it was a difficult task. There were fewer land casualties in Vietnam due to a focus on air power, and remains from downed planes were not as easily recovered. As well, recovered remains were usually matched with a casualty, since only one plane had gone down that month in that area. Eventually, they “shortlisted” four “candidates” for the unknown soldier.
Out of the four candidates, the lab eventually eliminated three as inappropriate. They were potentially the remains of a deserter, a delinquent and misidentified soldier and in one case, possibly a Vietnamese soldier. The last was originally classified as “believed to be” the remains of an American pilot, 1st Lieutenant Michael Blassie. After a series of testing errors and poor documentation, the remains were changed from “believed to be” classification to “unknown” in 1980. Despite the forensic lab’s reservations, as they were aware of the remains’ questionable status, government pressured pushed them to officially declare them as unknown. In 1984, the remains were interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns as President Reagan awarded the unknown soldier the Medal of Honor. Reagan emphasize the soldier as a symbol of national unity and national healing from the divisive years of the Vietnam War.
So it remained until 1998. For a decade, rumours swirled that the U.S. government knew that the identity of the unknown soldier, and new technological advancements in DNA testing provided the ability to confirm it. A CBS news report in January investigated the government’s poor handling of the remains and spurred public pressure for the government to act. In May, the remains were removed from the tomb and tested. As Sarah Wagner notes, “for the next 6 weeks, the remains would occupy that liminal space between the sacred and profane, simultaneously the object of national reverence as the honored Unknown, yet subject to scientific inquiry into the individual presumptive identity of 1stLt Michael J. Blassie.” Eventually, the remains were confirmed to be that of 1st Lieutenant Blassie, and reburied by his family. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the Vietnam War remains empty to this day, though it retains its reverence at the Arlington National Cemetery as a memorial to the soldiers of the Vietnam War.
Though Canada inaugurated its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2000, the concept is less affirming than it was in the years immediately after the First World War. Better documentation, identification using DNA from the body and relatives, and far fewer casualties in modern conflicts make it less and less likely that there will be unidentified remains in future wars. At least, in the wars we have fought in the last half century. It is likely that with enough time and effort, the unknown soldier in its tomb in Ottawa could be identified. It would serve no purpose however, as the symbolic power of the unknown soldier continues to resonate today.
In the case of the United States, who has several tombs of the Unknown, what does their future commemoration hold? No soldiers go unidentified in modern war. Technology has changed how we can collectively and individually commemorate war. While now every family can bury their lost son (or daughter), it unlikely new memorials to unknowns will be made. What new memorials will replace it? In the online world, perhaps a Twitter account will tweet the names of the fallen – crass as it may seem. Each tweet an individual memorial to the soldier, forever remembered online. Or turn the Facebook pages into memorials to them (as is already done with some). Where once we enshrined the unidentifiable, today we could enshrine their online identity as a tribute to the individual that is far more personal than their names etched in stone.