What is the most fitting way to honor those slain in battle? These days, you make a speech, fire a salute and perhaps build a memorial—being careful, of course, that no one publishes photographs of the fallen.
That last proviso, writes freelance author Sledge in this sometimes ham-fisted account of American military funerary custom, is an outcome of what has been called the Dover Test, “in which military gains are weighed against the vivid image of dead men and women being unloaded from air transports at Dover Air Fore Base.” In the Vietnam era, television brought us pictures of body bags on the tarmac each day; now, since Americans apparently cannot handle the thought that war means death, the military is at pains to keep the media away “from all places where the dead are transported.” Death was not always kept from the public, though, even if it took the government some time to figure out what its role in bringing the bodies home might be. In times past, that is to say, America’s dead were buried where they fell; only over time did it become standard for the fallen to be relocated to burial grounds near home. Sledge competently describes the evolution of remains-identification techniques in the field, the development of military cemeteries and repatriation methods since the 19th century, and the thorny issues surrounding what to do with the enemy bodies that accumulate along the way; his account of what happens to the dead in situ will satisfy any student of forensics. Yet the writing is clumsy throughout, as when Sledge inserts himself into the narrative to confess, “I had to compartmentalize myself and create some space between my thoughts and feelings and the job I was doing, much like the surgeon preparing to penetrate a patient’s brain with scalpel, rods, and fingers.”
A very promising topic, and one worthy of a better book. For now, though, this will do.