Tomb of the Unknowns Still Has A Message

Modern science threatens to destroy one of our nation's most honored  and cherished traditions. Maybe it's about time.

I am talking about the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Thanks to new genetic testing methods, the previously unidentifiable remains  of a serviceman killed in the Vietnam War have been identified as Air Force  1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a pilot shot down over South Vietnam.

At a time when many were eager to put the pain of that divisive war behind  us, President Ronald Reagan interred an “unidentifiable” serviceman in  Arlington National Cemetery beside the unknown from World War I,  World War II and Korea.

But Blassie's family was convinced that the bones belonged to the lieutenant,  whose papers were apparently found with the remains but later lost. CBS  News raised questions about whether the remains might have been rushed to  interment by a military eager to honor a soldier from Vietnam.

In May, a reluctant Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered the remains  dug up for an examination with new DNA testing methods not available in  1984. On June 30, Cohen notified Blassie's mother that the remains were
indeed those of her son.

The next day, Cohen announced a serious problem. The nation may never  again have an “unknown” soldier to lay to rest in that hallowed national  shrine. “I could be proven wrong,” he said, “but it would seem to me that  given the state of the art today, it's unlikely.”

In a nation that has few national rituals to match the color and grandeur of,  say, England, which handles pomp and ceremony more elegantly than just  about anyone, the Tomb of the Unknowns always has been quite special.  Watched over by an elite honor guard every day, it has long been one of our  most revered national symbols.

Now, with its future uncertain, Secretary Cohen says he is turning to the  Congress, the Pentagon, veterans organizations and family associations “to determine how best to honor our missing Vietnam veterans in the absence of  a Vietnam unknown.”

If it were left up to me, I would leave the space empty. It's the best option  practically and symbolically.

As a practical matter, any new unknown soldier, sailor or airman from  Vietnam may well touch off the same troubling round of controversy,  interment and disinterment that Blassie's touched off. Advances in DNA  science make identification possible from remains as minute as a tooth  fragment.

There are very few unidentified remains left from that war, yet more than  2,000 of its American servicemen remain classified as missing in action.   The right of families to be reunited with the remains of their missing service  veterans must take precedence over the feelings of the rest of us for whom  the tomb is sacred ground.

Symbolically, an empty space would represent the unknown dead of Vietnam  no less reverentially than the missing plane in the special formation Air Force  pilots fly at funerals for their fallen veterans and other state dignitaries.

The empty space also would serve as a poignant reminder of the emptiness  that remains in our nation, as long as any of its children remain missing and  unaccounted for after paying the ultimate price in service to their country.

To me, the compelling message of the Unknown  Soldiers always has been in  their anonymity.

We didn't know who they were and that was the point. They could be any  American man or, increasingly, woman, because the ordinary people carry  the biggest load in war and quite often carry it with astonishing, breathtaking  heroism, resourcefulness, tenacity and sacrifice.

Years before I became one of the last batch of young citizens to be drafted  into the Vietnam call-up, the Tomb of the Unknowns held a special meaning  for me as one of our most noble and useful national myths.

No one was supposed to know anything about who or what “the unknowns”  were. No one was supposed to know their race, their ethnic group, their  religious affiliation or anything else, other than the simple fact that they had  paid the ultimate price in service to their country. That was the way we  wanted it.

In that symbolic way, the unknown soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines  buried there bring us all together in death in ways our society still strives to  come together in life.

But, when a tradition becomes outdated, it is time to change the tradition.

Science has removed some of the mystery that gives spiritual strength to the  Tomb of the Unknowns. But the messages it conveys remain as powerful as ever.

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