Facing Death: Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations

In a somewhat gruesome but unblinking new publication (pdf) prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. military prescribes doctrine for the recovery, identification, handling and burial of deceased soldiers, enemy combatants and civilian detainees.

The violent, horrible death of combatants and non-combatants is of course a defining characteristic of war. And the strange efforts by the Bush Administration to prevent the media from photographing flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq (until a lawsuit overturned the policy last year) did nothing to change this reality.

The new doctrinal publication anticipates that the casualties of war may be mutilated or dismembered. They may be dangerously contaminated with chemical or biological agents or radioactive materials. Mass casualties may overwhelm existing facilities, forcing improvised solutions such as mass interment.

The publication stresses the dignified treatment of the dead, and includes summary accounts of the rituals associated with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religious traditions. (“Other than common respect, Buddhists do not have any particular requirements concerning the handling of human remains following death.”)

See “Mortuary Affairs in Joint Operations,” Joint Publication 4-06, June 2006 (195 pages, 2.5 MB).

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