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Since I showed an example how to not to recover war dead earlier, I thought I would write a post about how war dead are properly recovered and identified. My experience and knowledge primarily surrounds the United States, but other countries are discussed as well.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States

The United States government puts the most effort into the recovery and identification of war dead worldwide. There are a handful of agencies involved, and they're a big alphabet soup of acronyms. I'll mainly be talking about historic conflicts, but it's worth mentioning that the deceased from our current conflicts are recovered and returned by the Service Casualty offices (one for each branch). Analysis and identification of any unidentified remains is done by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (AFMES). They have forensic pathologists and DNA identification experts on staff that function like a civilian medical examiner's office.


Historic conflicts are handled by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Located in Hawaii, JPAC was formed from the unification of the US Army Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI) and the Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA). JTF-FA was set up specifically for resolving the fates of Vietnam Conflict servicemembers. JPAC covers all conflicts from World War II through Vietnam, and occasionally has cases come in from World War I and the Cold War.

The heart of JPAC is the CIL, the Central Identification Laboratory. The staff of civilian archaeologists and forensic anthropologists are responsible for the recovery and identification of remains. They are aided by historians, military liaisons, supply staff, and others. JPAC starts by examining archival records of loss incidents to determine where an individual was last seen alive. This history is used by investigation teams (IT) who travel around the world to provide more details. For example, an IT may read the details of a plane that was shot down and travel to a village near where the plane was last seen. Interviews with locals can reveal wreckage areas nearby. Investigating this wreckage might produce evidence that ties it to a specific loss (think tail numbers, or dog tags, etc.).

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Once a site has been linked to a loss incident a recovery mission is sent. An archaeologist or forensic anthropologist will travel to the site and excavate it fully using standard archaeological methods. This means they use a grid to establish spatial provenience, map significant finds, and photograph everything. Soil is sifted through wire mesh screens (see above) to find even the smallest fragment of bone, tooth, or evidence. Recovered evidence is transported back to the lab in Hawaii. Work on site is usually difficult and occasionally dangerous. Explosive ordinance disposal technicians often accompany recovery teams.


Once there the evidence is evaluated by different anthropologists. That is, the person doing the skeletal analysis is working "in the blind" in order to prevent that person from being influenced by the details of the case. If the anthropologist knew, for example, that a case was supposed to be the remains of a 25 year old white male, they might be subconsciously prejudiced to look for skeletal traits that support that finding and ignore ones that don't. The skeletal remains are measured to determine height and ancestry. There is a linear correlation between living height and the length of long bones. Ancestry can be determined with the discriminant function analysis of measurements of bones of the face and cranial vault. Mitochondrial DNA is also sampled from the bones. This sample is sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), which as mentioned above is part of the AFMES. AFDIL compares the mtDNA sequence to its list of family reference samples. These family reference samples can come from extended maternal relatives of the deceased, since mtDNA passes exclusively (or close enough) from mother to child. If you are a maternal family member of a missing servicemember, you can submit your DNA sample using this link. Teeth are examined by forensic odontologists and compared to dental charts and x-rays that may be in the deceased's military records. When the preponderance of evidence indicates that the skeletal remains match a specific individual the director authorizes the identification and the remains are entrusted to the legal next of kin. They may wind up in a national cemetery like Arlington, or in a family plot; it's up to the NOK.

The Commonwealth Countries

The Commonwealth nations, specifically the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have unique rules about the recovery of war dead. In the wake of the First World War, Britain had suffered incredible losses (over half a million and possibly closer to one million). Many of those dead were not recovered from the European continent. The government quickly realized that recovering everyone would be impossible, especially given the state of the economy. They also realized that the only people that would be possibly recovered would be those with wealthy families that could pay to find their missing loved one.


The Commonwealth Graves Commission came to the conclusion that in order to ensure fairness they needed to implement a policy where war dead would be left where they were and memorialized together. To that end, the governments of Commonwealth nations do not actively pursue the recovery and identification of their war dead.

Occasionally, when construction or farming uncovers the remains of a Commonwealth soldier, the respective government will send an anthropologist to analyze the remains and organize a reburial in the closest military cemetery. These efforts are somewhat limited. For example, Canada's Directorate of History and Heritage only has one anthropologist on staff, and uses university anthropologists and other volunteers as needed. That being said they do good work.


The Fromelles Project is an example of really good work being undertaken by the Australian Army. They had a full lab set up at the battlefield and conducted full analysis and DNA sampling before reburial. To date they've identified 124 soldiers from that battlefield and erected individual headstones for them on the site.

There's a possibility that due to changing public opinions on how war dead and their surviving families should be treated that Commonwealth nations might consider allowing families to take possession of remains. I'm not sure how likely this is, but it's something that's discussed by people touched by this issue in these countries.


Other Countries

Other countries tend to be even less engaged in recovering war dead. Russian war dead are primarily recovered and identified by the so called "white diggers." These individuals are all volunteers who search for bodies and conduct historic research. They rely on identification tags, because they don't have the resources to conduct DNA analysis. Their field methods appear to be in line with standard archaeological techniques. Japan is largely the same. Most efforts are done by volunteers and family members. The government does take possession of remains that are turned over to them by others. In fact, they are attempting to recover the bones of Japanese war dead recovered from Saipan and housed at UC Berkeley. This may have been resolved by now, but I haven't seen an update. Individual identification is not something that is regularly pursued, with group burial being the norm. How to deal with Japanese war dead has been a contentious issue. I don't know much about Germany and France, but they both have their own war graves commissions (Germany, France). As mentioned above, it seems that without strong government involvement volunteers and looters dominate the landscape. While the volunteers in Russia appear to be doing everything by the book, the door is open to unqualified profiteers like the "Nazi War Diggers," whose show mercifully has been pulled.


I appreciate that this is a Western-centric post, but it's what I know the most about. I'd be happy to hear about the efforts of other nations to recover their war dead. Maybe a future post could discuss the science behind identification more? Anything else people would like to read or see?

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