From regimental number to genetic code: The handling of bodies of war victims in the search for identity
31-12-2002 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 848, by Luc Capdevila, Danièle Voldman
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This article retraces the recent history of war victims according to how they are identified and counted, and how their remains are treated. Today, anthropologists and doctors can examine the remains of bodies taken from gravesites and establish the circumstances of death. In future, tombs of the unknown soldier could well be replaced by monuments to unidentified civilians.
Starting from the middle of the nineteenth century, the principles governing the processing of corpses and the accounting of those deceased on the battlefield were inscribed in military codes. The military and civil authorities carried out the official collection and recording of the effects of the dead: the bodies were to be searched for, identified, and protected from plundering and ill treatment. In Europe and in the United States, tombs were constructed containing non-identified remains under the name of “unknown soldiers”. Gradually, intelligence services and resources were mobilized to ensure as far as possible an individualized processing of the bodies of those killed in war. These procedures were extended little by little to civilian victims. Today in the Balkans, or in Argentina, pits are being opened, human remains are exhumed, and anthropologists and physicians examine bodies, remains and bones in order to establish the identity of the dead and the circumstances of the d eath. In this regard, the tombs of unknown soldiers are likely to be replaced by monuments to the memory of non-identified civilian victims of war.