"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."
--C. Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001On November 9, about a month ago, Christopher Hitchens' elegant statement about burning bodies and failed experiments was revealed to be not just figuratively powerful, but literally true. That was the day we learned that the nation's main military mortuary at Dover AFB had been incinerating dead soldiers (or parts of them) from Iraq and Afghanistan and tossing the remains into a Virginia dump. The King George County Landfill, specifically.
Initially the numbers involved were not known. But the process by which this happened was pried from the current administration by the Washington Post, following a decade of enforced secrecy on mortuary processes imposed by Bush the First and maintained through Bush II:
The Air Force said it first cremated the remains and then included those ashes in larger loads of mortuary medical waste that were burned in an incinerator and taken to a landfill. Incinerating medical waste is a common disposal practice but including cremated human ashes is not, according to funeral home directors, regulators and waste haulers.
Air Force officials said they do not know when the landfill disposals began. They said their first record of it is Feb. 23, 2004. The mortuary database became operational in late 2003.
The revelation of the process had predictable impact:
Gari-Lynn Smith, portions of whose husband’s remains were disposed of in the landfill after his 2006 death in Iraq, said she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way the Air Force had acted. She learned of the landfill disposal earlier this spring in a letter from a senior official at the Dover mortuary.
“My only peace of mind in losing my husband was that he was taken to Dover and that he was handled with dignity, love, respect and honor,” Smith said. “That was completely shattered for me when I was told that he was thrown in the trash.”
After four years of letters, phone calls and records requests, she received a letter from the mortuary in April stating that the military cremated and incinerated those partial remains and disposed of them in the King George landfill.
“I hope this information brings some comfort to you during your time of loss,” read the letter, signed by Dean.
On the 7th of this month the Post published again, this time with information that Dover had processed 967 fragmentary remains associated with 274 soldiers--had burned them in an incinerator, combined them with medical waste, and dumped them in the landfill.
Not included in this total were an additional 1,761 partial human remains that were not DNA-assayed and from which an estimate of "Minimum Number of Individuals" was apparently never calculated. This means that the count of 274 soldiers disposed of in this manner is almost certainly too low, and it seems doubtful that the remains we currently know about are the only ones that were treated in this way.
For those like me who struggle with our writing, Hitchens' skill was a thing of beauty. But it is impossible to balance his statement above with Hitchens' subsequent rigid defense of the invasion, occupation, and ultimately, the destruction of Iraq. Especially following the rise of the Arab Spring and how that home-grown movement has put the lie to America's stated efforts to 'promote democracy" in the region.
Hitchens was right the first time, and he should have stuck with it. If anything, he understated it. US policy in Iraq, rather than transforming the region, is ending in bloody failure, and the returning body parts and the dead soldiers who once owned them are not being burned "like the waste-product of a failed experiment". These are exactly that--soldiers bundled with and treated as biological waste products, secretly swept away from a failed experiment and hidden in a Virginia ash-heap.