Memorial Day and Dog Tags

WWII dog tags

On Monday, America will mark Memorial Day. The holiday has evolved into a general celebration of patriotism, veterans and all things military. But the holiday was originally established to serve as a memorial to America's dead soldiers from the Civil War.

One of the most solemn events on Memorial Day is the customary presidential wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This year's ceremony, like those of the past several years, is likely to be particularly somber given the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unlikely, however, that America will ever have to bury another unknown soldier. Our military now goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure no soldier is left behind -- and that no remains go unidentified.

This short piece from the Army's public affairs branch chronicles the evolution of "dog tags" and the nation's commitment to ensuring the identification of its war dead:

At the American Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, before Union troops made a frontal assault on Confederate trenches, they wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. They did not want to be forgotten.

During the Spanish American War, Chaplain Charles E. Pierce believed the identity of war dead should be practiced on a more scientific basis. He suggested a central collection agency where mortuary records would be gathered, and the addition of an "Identity Disk" in every Soldier's combat field kit. This "Identity Disk," in 1899, is considered the first institutionalized identification tag.

U.S. troops were issued identification tags en masse in 1908 and the tags have been a required part of the uniform ever since.

The nickname for the ID tag was first coined by William Randolph Hearst who printed unfavorable stories about the New Deal and President Roosevelt in 1936. Having heard the Social Security Administration was considering the use of a nameplate for personal identification, Hearst called it a "Dog Tag."

By Phillip Carter |  May 21, 2008; 12:45 PM ET  | Category:  Army
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Unless and until we have identification of the type that can be painlessly injected into the arm, leg or neck of a soldier, we will always have unidentified soldiers.

Posted by: Peter Hayward | May 21, 2008 2:03 PM

I agree with Peter Hayward. Although having a full DNA record of each and every soldier will in theory help establish the identity of any human remains, the fact is that if a soldier is "missing" and no "remains" are available......

Posted by: Marina | May 21, 2008 2:51 PM

I think we all said it well a couple of years ago. . .

Posted by: seydlitz89 | May 21, 2008 7:23 PM

Disagree with Peter and Marina. @Peter, every Soldier has their DNA on file. Even for Soldiers from earlier eras without DNA on file there has been routine success at identifying remains through the use of relatives' DNA. Also, it is far more likely that a piece of DNA will be retrieved than an injected marker.

@Marina, a missing Soldier is not the same as an unknown Soldier. It took us five years to recover SSG Maupin's remains but we never stopped looking and at no point was he considered to be unknown.

Posted by: Soldier | May 21, 2008 10:56 PM

In the South Pacific, one of the more hazardous patrols was finding and recovering bodies from the place of a fire fight. The men I served with all said, "Don't risk anybody's life hunting for my body. Let it lie where it fell".

Posted by: Chief | May 22, 2008 12:02 AM

Concur with the comment by the unnamed Soldier at 10:56. War is messy, an ID marker may end up in the missing body part.

I agree we are pretty good at forensics now so that if even a body part is found the person can be identified. The problem as Soldier pointed out is finding the body. In World War I, there were hundreds of thousands of unknown and missing soldiers. Some were ours but mostly French, British, and German. Some blown apart by horrendous artillery bombardment. Some were buried alive due to trench cave-ins and ended up missing and never found. In Flanders they say more soldiers drowned in their flooded trenches or as they lay wounded in flooded shell craters than the Navy lost at sea. Most of those bodies when recovered were unidentifiable. In the no-man's-land of Verdun and Passchendale the rats chewed away the faces of the dead and their bones were bleached by clouds of poison gas.

As far as DNA, I am not a big fan of keeping soldier's DNA on file. I have a clear picture in my mind of some future politician deciding to use that DNA for nefarious "cost-saving" purposes that could end up doing harm to the soldiers that own that DNA. There are many possibilities for mischief there, too many to list. Lock-boxes are never locked to crooked or even well-meaning-but-misguided politicians.

Volunteers from my local VFW post will be placing flags on veteran's graves this weekend. Our small town cemetery does not have the monuments and grandeur of Arlington, but the people at our ceremony will be as solemn as Mr Bush and a lot more so. If you see an old man in a campaign hat selling Buddy Poppies this weekend, he is probably doing it to subsidize sending CARE packages to those deployed to OIF and OEF, or to help defray expenses for senior citizen vets to get back and forth to the nearest VA medical center. Stop and thank him and throw in a few greenbacks to the kitty.

Posted by: mike | May 22, 2008 1:18 AM

There's an absolutely gorgeous imagined vingette in Dos Passos' _USA_ -- I think at the end of _1919_ -- of a dying soldier disgusted with his fate, hating the possibility that his name on a monumnet might turn into an empty symbol or recruiting device, and hurling his dog tags into the brush so they'd never be able to identify him or abuse his name -- and of course the poor s.o.b. becomes the "Unknown Soldier."

Posted by: Sanjay | May 22, 2008 10:12 AM

I can't improve on what Mike said, but would suggest that DNA records are too valuable not to collect for identification of casualties. Why not put the DNA info in the hands of the VFW, or some other veteran group?

Posted by: unclesven | May 24, 2008 11:01 AM

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