of the Unknowns Still Has A Message
By CLARENCE PAGE - July 1998
science threatens to destroy one of our nation's most honored and
cherished traditions. Maybe it's about time.
I am talking about the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Thanks to new genetic testing methods, the previously unidentifiable remains of a serviceman killed in the Vietnam War have been identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a pilot shot down over South Vietnam.
At a time when many were eager to put the pain of that divisive war behind us, President Ronald Reagan interred an "unidentifiable" serviceman in Arlington National Cemetery beside the unknown from World War I, World War II and Korea.
But Blassie's family was convinced that the bones belonged to the lieutenant, whose papers were apparently found with the remains but later lost. CBS News raised questions about whether the remains might have been rushed to interment by a military eager to honor a soldier from Vietnam.
In May, a reluctant
Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered the remains dug up for
an examination with new DNA testing methods not available in 1984.
On June 30, Cohen notified Blassie's mother that the remains were
The next day, Cohen announced a serious problem. The nation may never again have an "unknown" soldier to lay to rest in that hallowed national shrine. "I could be proven wrong," he said, "but it would seem to me that given the state of the art today, it's unlikely."
In a nation that has few national rituals to match the color and grandeur of, say, England, which handles pomp and ceremony more elegantly than just about anyone, the Tomb of the Unknowns always has been quite special. Watched over by an elite honor guard every day, it has long been one of our most revered national symbols.
Now, with its future uncertain, Secretary Cohen says he is turning to the Congress, the Pentagon, veterans organizations and family associations "to determine how best to honor our missing Vietnam veterans in the absence of a Vietnam unknown."
If it were left up to me, I would leave the space empty. It's the best option practically and symbolically.
As a practical matter, any new unknown soldier, sailor or airman from Vietnam may well touch off the same troubling round of controversy, interment and disinterment that Blassie's touched off. Advances in DNA science make identification possible from remains as minute as a tooth fragment.
There are very few unidentified remains left from that war, yet more than 2,000 of its American servicemen remain classified as missing in action. The right of families to be reunited with the remains of their missing service veterans must take precedence over the feelings of the rest of us for whom the tomb is sacred ground.
Symbolically, an empty space would represent the unknown dead of Vietnam no less reverentially than the missing plane in the special formation Air Force pilots fly at funerals for their fallen veterans and other state dignitaries.
The empty space also would serve as a poignant reminder of the emptiness that remains in our nation, as long as any of its children remain missing and unaccounted for after paying the ultimate price in service to their country.
To me, the compelling message of the Unknown Soldiers always has been in their anonymity.
We didn't know who they were and that was the point. They could be any American man or, increasingly, woman, because the ordinary people carry the biggest load in war and quite often carry it with astonishing, breathtaking heroism, resourcefulness, tenacity and sacrifice.
Years before I became one of the last batch of young citizens to be drafted into the Vietnam call-up, the Tomb of the Unknowns held a special meaning for me as one of our most noble and useful national myths.
No one was supposed to know anything about who or what "the unknowns" were. No one was supposed to know their race, their ethnic group, their religious affiliation or anything else, other than the simple fact that they had paid the ultimate price in service to their country. That was the way we wanted it.
In that symbolic way, the unknown soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines buried there bring us all together in death in ways our society still strives to come together in life.
But, when a tradition becomes outdated, it is time to change the tradition.
Science has removed some of the mystery that gives spiritual strength to the Tomb of the Unknowns. But the messages it conveys remain as powerful as ever.