Image Credits: Stacy P. Fischer, March 2014.
The claim that unidentified deaths are more tragic than identifiable ones is rather compelling; unidentified bodies die twice, departing from the realm of mortality while obscuring their unnamed self from the realm of memory as well. It follows, hence, that the practice of naming serves a critical function in society, not only in determining ethnic, religious or cultural markers of belongingness but also an individual’s identity, which can then be contextualised within these broader social markers. Thus, an unidentified death can be regarded as the loss of a name in and to society itself. This loss, when in sacrifice to the security of the state, threatens the very existence of the unnamed individual’s identity and belongingness as a valuable contributor to society. The question then arises – when there is no name left behind to claim recognition of a soldier’s sacrifice, what effect might such a nameless death have on the bereaved community?
In 1984, the Reagan administration interred the remains of an unidentified soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington in an attempt to honour the nameless deaths of the Vietnam War in their entirety. However, the body had, in fact, been informally identified as that of Lt. Michael J. Blassie by MIA activists and fellow soldiers much before it was entombed (Thomas, The Washington Post). In light of the above, it can be contended that the deliberate un-identification of Blassie’s remains by the Reagan administration was aimed at reconciling American differences over the Vietnam War through a patriotic yet farcical narrative of ‘honouring’ the unnamed dead.
Prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975, internal strife had gripped the United States of America; the nation was divided into those who believed that the United States’ continued involvement in the war in Vietnam was futile, and those who backed the administration’s aggressive stance in the said war (Allen, 96). However, the citizens of the United States soon found themselves united by an increasingly skeptical attitude towards the government’s performance in the war once it ended. Although such criticism encompassed varying issues, it was underlaid with the dishonour attached to losing a war and the precarity of the United States’ hegemony in the international political system. Thus, in the years following the war, and irrespective of party affiliation, administrators were burdened by the need to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the lives and prestige lost; this necessitated the manipulation of the public memory of the war itself. In one such instance, President Ronald Reagan conceived a means by which to shape public discourse surrounding the War in Vietnam relating to the remains of soldiers; in so doing, he sought to reconcile domestic criticism of American war efforts.
For a large number of Americans, the end of the Vietnam War was marked by an anguished need for closure, caused by the government’s callous approach to the recovery of the war remains of its soldiers (Allen, 119). The administration was shockingly negligent in this regard, abandoning the mortal remains of their troops in the enemy state. In light of the political unease prevailing among the masses towards the lack of government action, Reagan decided to enshrine a war memorial in honour of the unnamed soldiers of Vietnam. This memorial would assume the form of the Tomb of the Unknowns, in the very Arlington cemetery that already held nameless graves from previous American involvements in wars. However, instead of honouring the remains of each recoverable, unidentified soldier, he reified the tragedy of namelessness in death by finding one set of remains and memorializing it for the sake of thousands of forgotten others.
Unsurprisingly, prior to the national elections in the following year of 1984, a set of suitable unidentified remains was found for the Vietnam War memorial; the Reagan administration built an expensive, pale-white marble tomb and interred this nameless soldier’s remains, henceforth to be known as the unknown soldier (Allen, 92). Reagan’s eulogy for the unknown soldier, however, betrayed a victimization of the American self, and was but a laughable attempt to shift the public’s gaze from holding their government accountable for war deaths to glorifying the unnamed dead (Allen, 94). Furthermore, intermingled with subtle religious undertones, his eulogy tried to externalize the fallout from the conflict. The single, nameless body became a symbol of the sufferings of a cohesive America – except for the fact that this suffering held a different meaning for Reagan’s motives than it did for the thousands of families of Vietnam veterans, as well as the men who went missing in action.
In other words, the loss of the unknown soldier’s name – in the process of his sacrifice for his state – culminated in a threat to the essence of his individual’s unique identity as a significant contributor to his community. Moreover, the erection of a war memorial implies the termination of a conflict and its impact (Allen, 107), a fact which only served to antagonise the influential fringe of people still pushing for the recovery of the remains of soldiers. The most striking aspect of the war memorial, however, was that the unknown soldier’s grave was marked with the inscription –
“Here Rests in Honoured Glory
An American Soldier
Known but to God”
– except that he was known to Reagan. His body was unidentified, not unidentifiable (Allen, 110). It was that of pilot Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose aircraft was shot down in Vietnam in 1972. At the time, scientists may not have had the required technology to identify the body; however, the defence department had the required evidence to prove that the remains were Blassie’s (Allen, 92). Despite opposition from MIA activists, Michael Blassie’s name was forcibly thrust into oblivion to fuel nationalist sentiment. Instead of his remains being rightfully claimed by his kin, Blassie’s body was reduced to a symbolic entity whose remains were being claimed by a nation of aggrieved citizens.
It was only in 1998 – following heated deliberation on the part of MIA activists – that the already known soldier was disinterred from his tomb and returned to his family. Michael’s sister, Col. Patricia Blassie, described their family’s long-drawn fight to lay claim to his body in an interview in 2012, “In the end, all you have is your name. When that’s taken away, you’re left with nothing. We just wanted Michael’s name back.” (Thomas, The Washington Post). Thus, while material bodies may be imperative for a sense of closure in death, taking away the name of a dead body puts its entire identity and memory in a state of crisis – for many of the veterans’ families, the name of a solider was the only identifiable aspect of the soldiers’ identity that was left behind to mourn.
It is safe to conclude that Reagan’s shrewd rhetoric behind his honouring the sacrifice of the unnamed dead in the Vietnam War had backfired. His intention to unify American identity by honouring the unknown soldier ended up glorifying national interest, whilst tragically overlooking the trivialisation of the nameless deaths in the war, and imposing a forcible anonymisation of their identities. The American public was already distraught over the government abandoning its soldiers overseas; the subsequent weaponization of these soldiers’ obscured, nameless memory to create a web of lies lined with nationalist sentiment may have permanently soured the collective American memory of the War in Vietnam.
Isha Dasari is a 2nd year student of Psychology and International Relations at Ashoka University. She takes keen interest in interdisciplinary approaches to global political affairs and hopes to pursue Critical IR Theory in the future.
Allen, Michael J. “‘‘Sacrilege of a Strange, Contemporary Kind’’: The Unknown Soldier and the Imagined Community after the Vietnam War.” History and Memory, vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 90–131. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/histmemo.23.2.90.
Fischer, Stacy P. “The Tomb rests atop the grave of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The crypts of the Unknowns from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War lay to the west of the Tomb under white marble slabs set flush with the plaza.” Visual Venturing, March 2014. https://stacyfischer.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/tomb-of-the-unknowns-arlington-cemetery.jpg
Thomas, Bill. “Last Soldier Buried in Tomb of the Unknowns Wasn’t Unknown.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Nov. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/last-soldier-buried-in-tomb-of-the-unknowns-wasnt-unknown/2012/11/06/5da3e7d6-0bdd-11e2-a310-2363842b7057_story.html.