Tuesday, August 11, 2009
August 9, 2009
Bone and Spirit
Editor's note: The Times asked Shreveporter Mike Sledge, author of a book on fallen servicemen and women, to offer his thoughts on the recovery of the remains of Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher.
The recent discovery of the remains of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, the Navy pilot shot down in the Gulf War, brings again to mind the significant and poignant body-as-mind-soul-person association that is so commonly expressed, albeit in a manner that often eludes easy observation.
Indeed, President Barack Obama illustrated this conflation of body and person when he recently said, "I am grateful to the Marines who pursued the information that led to Capt. Speicher's recovery so that he can now come home [italics added]." If you didn't know the rest of the story, you wouldn't know the president was speaking about someone who had died.
We know, in our heads, that whatever mind or soul that constituted Capt. Speicher is separate and apart from the frail human vessel that contained his essence — his spirit, if you will — and that the same is true for the ones we love. Yet, despite any ontological argument tucked away behind our foreheads, we have difficulty fully accepting the distinction between the body and the soul of those close to us, and long after we receive definitive proof of death, our hearts still ache for the resolution that a final disposition of remains so frequently offers.
The seemingly insensible joining of body and soul by the survivors of those who have died is most apparent in cases when a body is not available for final disposition, as has often been the case of military deaths. In past wars, the return of the remains of our Soldier Dead ("Soldier Dead" is a phrase that originated during the Civil War given, in toto, to those who died in service of our country) was not a guaranteed event. Mexico City still hosts a cemetery containing the remains of 750 unknown dead from our war with that country.
During the Spanish-American War, the United States built upon its Civil War experience and strove to better improve the accounting and handling for the dead, but it was World War I that brought about an organization specifically dedicated to the recovery, identification and overseas burial of our dead. But, then there was the question: Do we leave our Soldier Dead overseas or bring them back?
Arguments for both alternatives were fierce, with former President Theodore Roosevelt deciding to leave his son, Quentin, buried in France. Interestingly, some argued for the return of the dead not because of patriotism, but because burying the dead would provide needed jobs. However, and again to illustrate the body-person association, a mother wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, saying, "You took my son from me and sent him to war ... my son sacrificed his life to America's call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me." (The mother insisted that her son be returned to her, not her son's body.)
This mother's letter settled all arguments, and afterwards (and after WWII), the next of kin made the final determination of burial site, with approximately two-thirds electing to bring the remains of their loved ones home while the rest were buried overseas in cemeteries such as the Normandy burial site so beautifully portrayed in "Saving Private Ryan."
During the Korean War, the United States began a concurrent return of Soldier Dead, which provided family members with much quicker final resolution than was available after WWI and WWII when the dead were not repatriated until nearly two years had passed after the cessation of hostilities. Now, members of our Armed Forces who give their lives are home in days.
However, there are still those missing from WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam — nearly 88,000 all total. We still mount missions to recover, identify and repatriate the remains of these missing, and those searching have, at times, paid a heavy price themselves, even the ultimate price.
Why? Why do we search so hard and so long for those we know surely to be dead?
And so we circle back to the beginning of this article, that of the association between body and soul, even when we know that the "remains" that are found are little more than bones. These bones are the ones we loved, and, like the Athenians who provided a public ceremony and burial for the remains of its fallen, we know we will find rest when those bones do.
Mike Sledge is a freelance author who resides in Shreveport. His book, "Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen" was released in 2005. His Web site is www.mikesledge.com.