Friday, June 11, 2010

Army Completes Investigation at Arlington

The Army has completed its inquiry into the mishandling of remains at Arlington National Cemetery. Investigators have found two cases in which recent veterans' graves have been mismarked and 209 other cases of unclear records, mismarked graves, or misplaced remains from other historical periods (no word on whether that means Vietnam-era or Civil War-era — probably a mixture).

I'm glad that Arlington has conducted a review of their records and procedures and it sounds like they will be making some improvements to their record-keeping to guard against future errors. I hope that Army officials are being open, honest, an apologetic with the families involved in these cases. Soldiers' loved ones have been through enough and they deserve to be treated with respect.

I find this story fascinating because it confirms for me the extreme expectations of Americans regarding the treatment of the dead. Not only do we want our dead to be buried in fixed, marked locations, we expect those locations to endure eternally. This is a peculiarly modern and (as I hope to argue in my dissertation) a somewhat American-specific concern. Our impulse in these matters seems to be toward preservation and archiving — we are very uncomfortable with the concepts of decay, silence, and oblivion.

I don't mean to minimize the failures of management at Arlington. The two recent cases of mismarking are especially disappointing. Still, the Arlington records (as they are described in the CNN article) seem remarkably accurate by cemetery standards. Over 330,000 people have been buried at Arlington in the past 150 years and, having visited many cemeteries in the course of my research, I find it amazing that the investigators were only able to turn up 211 cases of discrepancies between the records and the reality. I don't think any other 19th-century cemetery would survive a similar inquiry with fewer errors.

Of course, any inconsistencies at Arlington are troubling because they seem like just one more way in which the Army fails to provide the highest standard of care for American soldiers. If you expect that a cemetery will preserve and mark the remains of individuals for all time, any failure to do so reads as an insult to the dead. I just wonder why Americans have those expectations in the first place.

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