Last week I had the honor to join with my company headquarters in D.C. for business and pleasure. They usually give me one free day to wander around the Nation’s Capitol. During this trip, I ventured into the Arlington National Cemetery.
I had expected a few things about the cemetery, all which were disproved while there. First, it’s not just soldiers that are buried there. Wives, infants and civilians are there, too. Some famous but there are plenty obscure and unknown. Second, as you move closer to the present there are fewer tombstones marked “unknown”.
I had expected there to be no “unknown” tombstones and just one “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” monument. Instead I found many tombstones marked “unknown soldier” – a whole field of them – and two tombs of unknown soldiers. One is the more famous with paths marked to get there. It’s huge with a single, large, uncomfortable marble chair on a stage facing rows of marble pews below. The other is a tomb marking the remains of 2111 unknown Civil War soldiers.
There are no unknown tombs in the Viet Nam plots and only a few in the Korean or World War II plots. World War I has more and Civil War has an entire field of unknown soldiers that were given little more than a number to their name. I suppose there was an absence of dog-tags then. But thought it was worth asking into. The woman at the center desk in the visitors center shed some light into this.
She said that at one time there were a few unknown soldiers in the Viet Nam plots, but that they had since been identified through DNA tests. All soldiers that die this point forward will not be unknown because of that biological technology. If I heard correctly, there are rare cases where bodies are exhumed for this purpose, which is how the last unknowns in the Viet Nam plot were identified.
It’s macabre, but comforting that we are able to identify the dead, but really – what is our identity? It’s certainly more than a chisel mark on a tombstone or a series of amino acids along a protein chain. Our souls are here on earth for a purpose, and like a green leaf on a tree or a single line of code, we’re here to play a small part in something much bigger than any one of us. And though we get lost in the billions of others that have come before us, live around us, and will come after us we are each significant… even if we’re “unknown”.