This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day, the annual holiday to remember United States soldiers who have died in combat. In his book, Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen, Michael Sledge explores what happens to members of the United States Armed Forces after they die. The popular image of a soldier removing the dog tags of his fallen comrade and vowing revenge before carrying the body back to safety couldn’t be further from the truth. In this book find out why recovering the remains of service people matters, how bodies are recovered, identified (remember those dog tags?), returned to families, buried, and remembered.
Below is an interview with Michael Sledge:
Q. How did you manage to write Soldier Dead without it becoming overly grim or morbid?
Michael Sledge: At one point someone did say to me that the book was “relentlessly morbid.” However, the reader will learn in the first few paragraphs that Soldier Dead is anything but grim and morbid. In fact, it is extremely heartening. It is about the courage and duty shown by a little known and seldom officially rewarded group of men and women.
Q. Do you think that people, in general, really need or want to know what happens when members of the U.S. military die, or that families need or want to know all the details of how the remains of their loved ones were handled?
Michael Sledge: Absolutely. The public has long since evolved from a passive role to a position of being very informed and involved. The attitude of Americans toward the government’s handling of war dead and missing began to change during the Korean War, when thousands of soldiers were missing. This change toward acquiring knowledge and becoming actively involved accelerated during the Vietnam War to the point where the U.S. government became motivated to revisit the subject of those missing and presumed killed from both the Korean War and World War II.
Q: It is difficult to imagine that the government has misled or would deliberately mislead bereaved families or cover up mistakes that occur with the handling of U.S. war dead. Has this happened? And, if so, why?
Michael Sledge: Since people are in control of the process of handling the dead, this handling is subject to the same range of quality, care, and concern as medical care, or any other field dealing with an extremely sensitive issue. Let me say first that I believe, on an overall basis, that the duty, care, and concern exhibited by those in charge of the dead have been remarkable. And their commitment is even more remarkable given the seriousness of the matter and the difficulty in trying to satisfy family members who have received, as one widow said, “The worst news of my life.”
It would be unwise not to recognize that there have been and are problems. Specifically, during the Gulf War, an Air Force gunship, the Spirit ’03, was shot down at the beginning of the conflict. In this case, the family feels that military authorities gave them incomplete, misleading, and inaccurate information concerning the downing of the plane. Not only were personal effects mishandled, authorities were not forthcoming about the mishandling and were insensitive to the issue. There were instances of extreme insensitivity regarding the postdeath transition period for the widows. A good example of this is that the Officers’ Club statements were changed to read “Widow X”—as though the grieving wives needed any reminder of their new status. And, finally, the actual handling of remains is subject to considerable debate, speculation, and even suspicion, with there being the possibility that a secret Special Operations mission was conducted that not only destroyed sensitive equipment but also further insulted the physical remains of the crew.
A recent example of how bad information can be disseminated, knowingly in my opinion and to cover up a mistake, is the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Tillman was killed by friendly fire, but the Army covered up important details of his death.
A disturbing trend that is arising is the increasing use of Special Operations Forces. It is difficult to obtain information on these operations. While it is important to employ tactics and methods that are at least militarily successful, I feel that doing so will more easily enable the hiding of information. This was certainly the case in Vietnam until the official veil of secrecy was lifted.
Q: Why did you feel that it was important to discuss how we handle enemy dead? Do you think that we are underinvested in taking care of enemy dead? And haven’t our enemies mistreated our dead?
Michael Sledge: Well, the subject of enemy dead became, surprisingly, an important topic because there is a strange intimacy between our dead and those we kill. There are extremely strong psychological and sociological themes that are hidden undercurrents in our relationship with the enemy. There is a complex interplay and conflict between the official positions of nations opposing each other in war, and the beliefs, experiences, and emotions of citizens of those nations, particularly those directly involved in combat. My research confirmed that the living are affected by how they treat the dead.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly said when warning President Bush about invading Iraq, “If you break it, you own it.” I believe that when we kill, we are responsible to the dead and we are responsible to those whom they left behind, regardless of enmity felt toward us. Without doubt, there is a double standard for the dead: one for ours and another for theirs.
We must also bear the responsibility that comes from killing. If we are going to lead, we must lead in every aspect. And herein lies a danger. We are currently using and experimenting with ways to kill from afar, such as the Predator. While avoiding losing American personnel is certainly worthwhile, how are we going to live with the consequences of impersonalizing death?
Q: How does the current administration rate with regard to subjects in Soldier Dead?
Michael Sledge: Well, you have to understand that current high-level political leaders have little to do with many established procedures and practices regarding the dead, any more than they have to do with bridge-building by Army engineers, or any other in-the-field activity. But, as I will explain, they certainly do play a role at times.
Certainly, the quick and humane treatment of our dead continues to evolve. During the Gulf War, there were very few remains that could not be positively identified with a specific serviceperson. I do not know of any deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan that did not have at least some portion of remains identified and returned.
However, the prohibition of photographing the return of remains from combat theaters is, in my mind, a way of managing public opinion. And I think that we should have in place a method, or ceremony, that will recognize the total number of deaths incurred in our military endeavors. When remains come back home in ones and twos, and when their returns are not covered by the press, we lose the acknowledgment of the ultimate price paid for certain political decisions.
Also, when it comes to enemy remains, we have several problems. One, information about what we do with them is extremely hard to obtain. Another is that we have, on both a military and a public opinion basis, a double standard. If the Iraq insurgency had killed Paul Bremer or Donald Rumsfeld, and put their remains in the press like Rumsfeld ordered for Uday and Qusay Hussein, we would have faced a call for revenge from the American people.
In my opinion, we have improved our treatment of enemy dead since the recent Gulf War when, as in World War II with dead Japanese, we bulldozed their remains into mass graves. Yet we will delay, for perfectly logical reasons, the collection of those we kill while risking all to collect our own dead.
And here is the tricky part. Our government and military leaders have always ultimately followed public desire with respect to our dead. When the American public has full knowledge of what happens when we kill, we may, and I emphasize may, demand that we handle all the dead in consistently humane and timely manner. While there are undoubtedly many in the public who have little desire to do anything with Iraqi dead, I feel that, once informed, more will feel otherwise.
Al Jazeera, for all its bias, has devoted a lot of space to depicting the deaths from this conflict, whether they are insurgents, Iraqi rebels, or innocent civilians. And behind each of those killed is a family that continues living. Are we making peace or are we making more enemies? It is the long run that concerns me.