Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s lasting legacy

On the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, Stanford scholar Laura Wittman reflects on how the historic monument came to be a widespread symbol for public grief and mourning.

Over the hundred years since the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated to honor unidentified service members who died fighting World War I, the historic monuments – located in multiple Allied countries; the United States’ was consecrated on Nov. 11, 1921, in Arlington National Cemetery – have come to represent sites for public grief and mourning, says Stanford scholar Laura Wittman.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, was dedicated on this date 100 years ago. (Image credit: Getty Images)

On the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s dedication, Wittman, who is the author of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body (University of Toronto Press, 2011), reflects on how the concept of taking a single, anonymous body, recovered from the frontline and given a formal burial, became a widespread approach to recognize the concrete cost of modern warfare. She discusses how the monuments broke with previous memorials of its era and how their meaning has evolved over time, including among some soldiers who identify with the monuments because they feel that their own sacrifices and services have gone unrecognized by wider society.

Wittman is an associate professor of French and Italian and primarily works on 19th- and 20th-century Italian and French literature from a comparative perspective. She is interested in how modernity articulates new relationships between religious experience, embodiment, mortality, health and politics, and how these are mediated by literary and artistic creations.


What does the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolize?

This Tomb was invented as World War I unfolded, by the French, the British and the Italians simultaneously, in imitation of the makeshift burials soldiers gave to their unidentifiable comrades whose bodies or body parts were found between the trenches. It is unprecedented, historically, in that it contains a single, anonymous body, retrieved from the battlefield, and given a ceremonial burial and a major monument. It responds to two unprecedented aspects of this war: first, the sheer number of the dead, whose bodies could often not be buried individually or repatriated, but who could be symbolically buried via this single, distributive body; second, a celebration of anonymous sacrifice, made by a humble soldier, corresponded to the only heroism possible for those who were more “cogs in the machine” than individuals. This new type of monument became extraordinarily popular throughout the 20th century and was used by nations as different politically as Iraq and Canada – likely because it expresses something unique about modern warfare, at once its concrete cost in human bodies and its anonymizing power.


How did the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier deviate from previous forms of mourning and memorialization of the time?

Previous war memorials were polarized between individualized celebrations of heroes, with tombs that brought together bodies and names, or cenotaphs (empty tombs) to the countless dead whose bodies were lost; the latter might list names, if possible. The closest precedent for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the ossuary, which contains the bones retrieved from the battlefield, but does not separate them into bodies; it also lists names, if possible. Hence the Unknown Soldier is truly remarkable for celebrating anonymity (lists of names were usually located in hometown memorials that contained no remains), and for the extraordinary care that went into the grisly task of finding a single body that – in 1920 – remained unburied on the battlefield, was whole enough to belong to one person, but was in no way identifiable.


Laura Wittman (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

How has its symbolism and interpretations changed throughout history?

In the last 100 years, the Tomb of the Unknown soldier has been used by competing political regimes in repeated attempts to appropriate its populism; for instance, the Italian Unknown Soldier was used in Fascist rituals to indicate the value of absolute obedience; later, it was used to celebrate partisan resistance against the Fascist regime. At the same time, starting right as World War I ended, the Unknown Soldier was also the protagonist of many writings – from poems and cartoons to imaginary biographies and acerbic critiques – in which he gives voice to soldiers’ desire to contest political appropriations, to express their embodied suffering and to craft a different society after the war. In other words, for the last 100 years, we find soldiers who identify with the Unknown because they too feel that their bodies have been used and broken by a culture that does not want to recognize their suffering.


What makes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier such a compelling monument for study?

It is compelling because of its insightful attempt to reconnect grieving to the body. In the 19th century, Western culture became largely alienated from death and dying: Cemeteries were moved away from cities largely for sanitary reasons, and death was increasingly medicalized; public grief lost its ritualistic character and became far shorter. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier compensates for all this alienation by offering closeness to a single body for all who lost a loved one they cannot literally touch. During inaugural ceremonies in France, England and Italy in 1920-21, crowds waited for many hours to touch the casket of the Unknown Soldier, and many expressed their grief with dramatic gestures and vocalizations.

I chose to study the Unknown Soldier because of the idea that the most embodied aspects of trauma, those that are “written in the body” in modern parlance, could receive a symbolic and theatrical expression in a monument, but also, crucially, in all the other art that accompanied this monument. We are still today seeking ways to recover from trauma, and clearly recovery is linked in complex ways to expression: The Tomb is a revealing take on how such expression can be given a public face.


What lessons can the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier teach people today?

I think there are two main lessons that come to mind. First, this monument is a key example of how the suffering of soldiers is an extremely powerful political voice that is all too often appropriated by agendas that are made later, for other purposes. It thus asks us pointed questions about who and how we choose to remember when we think about past (and more recent) wars. Second, this monument reveals the importance of the body in grieving – or of the meeting of the dead body with the living body of those who grieve. Western culture has neglected the importance of that encounter, but I think it would benefit greatly from seeking new ways to make it happen.


In the centennial year of the monument, are there any other thoughts that come to mind for you?

In the wake of COVID-19, when so many have not been able to be close to their dying loved ones, we have once again – in a very different context – lacked that embodied contact with the dead. Moreover, COVID deaths have been politicized, in polarized ways. This poses the question again of how we can give voice to the dead and their close ones without appropriating it, and while honoring the situated physicality of their suffering. The Tomb of Unknown Soldier, as a war memorial, is not the right answer, but it can be an inspiration, at the very least, to meditate today on how we can invent new forms of mourning that foreground embodiment.