David Kurtz, writing on Talking Points Memo about finding the grave of Corporal Pearl B. Wilkerson, who was killed in action in April 1945, just before the European war ended:
But what lingers for me about Wilkerson is how Memorial Day — for all the somber remembrances and displays of military hardware — is a small strike against the inevitable forgetting. Poor Wilkerson got a head start on being forgotten: buried in a now-churchless cemetery with headstones knocked over and steadily sinking into the ground, near a briefly prosperous village of Irish immigrants that was long past its prime when Wilkerson died and will eventually be a nameless crossroads. His is the same fate as that of the overwhelming majority of men who ever fought and died for their clan, tribe or country. Today we acknowledge how much we’ve forgotten by paying homage to what we have managed to remember.
Kurtz is right, of course, but it’s worth remembering [sic] that forgotten and buried–if buried at all–in an unknown, even unmarked grave has been the standard fate throughout history of those killed in war. Remembering and memorializing individual soldiers is a modern, i.e., 20th century, i.e., post-WWI practice.
Lutyens’ triumphal arch tower at Thiepval was one of the first attempts to recognize all the British soldiers who died at the Somme; their names cover every available surface of the arch. From the WWI innovation of dog tags to identify the dead to our current ability to match DNA from the tiniest fragment of a fallen soldier’s body, technology has rendered the idea of an unknown soldier obsolete. Perhaps it is time to switch to the Tomb of The Unremembered Soldier instead.
Gone and Largely Forgotten [tpm]