Oct. 7, 2009 For the first time in a generation, Arlington National Cemetery has marked the burial of an unknown on its storied grounds. Only this time, 25 years since the last interment at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the identity of the body remains a mystery not because the ravages of war made identification impossible, but because in a bureaucratic error the cemetery lost the paperwork showing the identity of the remains.They lost the paperwork! I dunno, maybe the fax machine got jammed. Maybe it happened the afternoon they threw an office party celebrating Iraqi National Sovereignty Day. Who knows? Now this soldier, whomever he or she is, resides for eternity in plot 449, section 68. But rest assured, they died a hero.
Arlington recently installed a headstone marked “Unknown” above grave 449 in section 68 of the cemetery. “A grave marker has been placed at grave 449 in section 68 noting the remains as Unknown,” Army spokesman Dave Foster confirmed to Salon in a statement.
But it gets even better:
But Arlington’s newest unknown, buried without special ceremony, is the exception to what was intended to be the rule. The cemetery buried someone in grave 449 -- likely relatively recently, since that section is an active part of the cemetery -- and then lost track of the paperwork showing the identity of the remains. In 2003, workers went to bury a newly deceased service member in that plot, only to find unmarked remains in the ground. Paper records had listed the plot as vacant.
Rather than publicly admit this error, Arlington quietly left the remains unmarked for six years. For those six years, passersby saw only an empty plot of green grass in spot 449, surrounded by stones etched with names.
This remained the case until this past summer, when Salon began working on tips from current and former workers at Arlington who said these kinds of mistakes occur with disturbing frequency at the cemetery, which calls itself “our nation’s most sacred shrine.”
At first, Arlington denied any problem. Salon asked the cemetery last summer, “Has the cemetery ever dug a grave only to find there is already someone there, though the grave is unmarked?” Cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst responded, “We are not aware of any situation like that.” Salon later produced internal paper records showing that the cemetery did not know the identity of the remains in grave 449.
When confronted with the foul up, they denied it, and they did so in language that would make any Pentagon spokesman proud: “We are not aware of any situation like that.”
We’ve gone from “Give me liberty, or give me death” to “We are not aware of any situation like that” in a scant 234 years. That’s what I call American exceptionalism!
Now the Army’s looking into into the mystery of plot 449, section 68, but won’t give any details, because, you’ll be surprised to learn, they “can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”
And with good reason. They don’t know what’s in plot 449, section 68. It might be empty, or the headstone might have been placed over a soldier they’ve correctly identified, which means that the real unknown soldier is buried under someone else’s name. But whose? For all they know, the real unknown soldier might be at the Detroit morgue. The Army would be facing what the Salon author describes as a “ripple effect public relations disaster” as one falsely identified corpse leads to the discovery of another, and another. Everyone in section 68 might be sleeping under the wrong tombstone.
Whoopsie daisy! Fubar, you know? Just place flowers three graves deep in every direction from where you “think” your son is buried. You’re bound to hit the right one sooner or later. It’s the thought that counts.
We produce so many deaths and so many corpses the people in charge of handling them can’t keep up. Maybe they’re short-handed and need to hire some new help. Maybe Arlington National Cemetery is one of the few truly recession-proof industries in America.
So much for “our nation’s most sacred shrine.” Besides, didn’t that honor pass over to Goldman Sachs last fall?