AROUND THE nation today, ceremonies will commemorate men and women who gave their lives to defend the country. None of these affairs will be more solemn or moving than that held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. And none can better symbolize the country's reverence for its war dead or the changing ways in which it shows its respect.
When the first unknown soldier was entombed in a place of honor after World War I, it was easier to maintain anonymity. The unknown soldier was one of many unidentified bodies in an era when forensic tools and identification methods were less sophisticated than now. This single casualty represented all those who died and, as such, was truly Everyman. He could have been a farm boy or a city kid, black or white, an immigrant or a descendant of Revolutionary soldiers.
That mystique is more difficult to maintain when the number of unidentified remains drops from thousands, as in World War II, to hundreds, as in Korea, to even fewer from Vietnam.
With DNA testing, better medical records and other tools available, only a few of those who died in Vietnam remain unidentified, but, even for some of them, the possibility of identification is not precluded.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense William Cohen approved a plan to remove the entombed remains of the unknown soldier from the Vietnam War to determine whether they can be identified and returned to the family of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a pilot whose plane was shot down in 1972.
If so, the Tomb of the Unknowns will have lost one of its mysteries, but one more American family will have some measure of peace about a loved one's patriotic sacrifice.
Until the Civil War, most soldiers killed in battle were buried hastily, often in unmarked graves. As it became possible to preserve and identify bodies, governments began constructing an elaborate system of cemeteries for the war dead, often located near the battlefields. But increasingly, families began to lay claim to the remains of their loved ones, and the governments obliged.
The future may still hold conflicts that produce unknown soldiers.
But even without the Everyman mystique so important earlier in this war-scarred century, the importance of honoring the sacrifices of men and women in uniform, and of recognizing the burdens those sacrifices place on their families, remains as great as ever.
Pub Date: 5/25/98