Category Archives: Death

The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and Death

The war in Afghanistan and Iraq followed the terrorist attack on 9/11, and the death of over 3,000 civilians ( Staff). In response, the U.S. engaged in conflict, and the total number of lives taken stands at 7,115 – 4,800 in Iraq and 2,315 in Afghanistan (Citizen Journalist, Statistic Brain). As low as these numbers are compared to wars of the past, the effects of the losses are just as immense, and families still grieve in much the same way. Moreover, because the conflict in Afghanistan has yet to cease, the numbers continue to climb, with updates of lives lost at least every month. The most recent update to the online databases was on April 15, 2014, recording the death of Spc. Kerry M. G. Danyluk (Citizen Journalist). Along with the currency of the information, the availability of the statistics about each soldier’s death is more open to the public than ever before. There are online databases and records, giving specifics about how the soldier died, as well as what rank and branch of the military the soldier served. To further increase the reality of these deaths, pictures of the fallen soldiers are posted with their information, giving a face to a name and recognition to a soldier.



Just as with the Vietnam War, the professional methods of notifying the family of the soldier’s death continued. The soldier was first identified, and then the commissioned officers notify the Remain Behind Party (RBE) at the soldier’s base location, within 8 hours of his death (Marine Parents). The RBE has contact information from the fallen soldier, retrieved from him before his deployment. The RBE then assigns a soldier of the same military branch to notify the family of the soldier, and he is identifiable by his uniform, as well as the vehicle that he arrives in (Marine Parents). Notification must be executed in person, within 24-36 hours of the loss. The soldier is accompanied by another soldier for support and aid, and together they deliver the news; the notification can only include information that has been confirmed and must follow a script, almost identical  to the script written up during the Vietnam War (Marine Parents). For soldiers WIA, a similar action must take place, but the family may be notified by telephone rather than in person. However, because of advances in technology and social media, accessibility of a soldier’s death may be complicated. Many families have reported complaints because they find the death of their loved one posted on Facebook or in the news before they are personally notified by the military (Gould, Joe). In response to this, the military has implicated regulations that the press can not be notified of the losses, or given any names, until after the families have been told. These rules are not always adhered to, and information may still leak.

The bodies of the fallen are returned home almost as quickly as the families are notified. Soldiers that have passed on are flown to Delaware, the location of the Dover Air Force Base (NFDA). There the identification of the bodies are confirmed once more, and they are embalmed, dressed, and placed in a casket (NFDA). From there they are either sent to their home town  or to a national cemetery to be buried, and in some cases, families prefer to retrieve the bodies from Delaware personally.The military accommodates for the family’s decisions, covering transportation costs and providing military escorts (NFDA). The military provides accommodations for transportation for the family, making arrangements with airports and ground transportation to ensure safe and timely arrival to Delaware (Bottorf, Yolanda).

Once the bodies have been taken to the desired location for burial, the ceremony takes place. The family can request military honors for burial, but that is not always the case. The ceremony is carried out adhering to a formal structure. The casket is draped with flag, with the blue corner at the head of the casket over the left shoulder (Drill and Ceremonies). Before lowering the casket, the flag is folded twelve times, then presented to the family (Drill and Ceremonies). Out of reverence, the flag is never to touch the ground. Along with the folding of the flag, a 21-gun salute is executed, and taps is played (Drill and Ceremonies). For some soldiers, there is a 3 rifle volley over the grave upon request.


One major improvement in handling the loss of a soldier during these conflicts is the increased support from the military. As aforementioned, transportation costs were covered, and notification was made as respectable as possible. For families that chose to go to Delaware, Dover Campus is open providing free lodging and food for the family, as well as chaplain services if desired (Battorf, Yolanda). Moreover, they have assistant programs at the campus, and programs that continue at home. The most well known assistant program is the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors (TAPS) that provides coping mechanisms,  group therapies, and and religious services for wives, mothers, and children of the fallen soldiers (Battorf, Yolanda). Specifically for children, they have Grief camps that provide pamphlets and mentors that teach them healthy ways to deal with the loss and fully understand what happened, as well as Memory boxes, put together by the military to provide emotional support for the children (Battorf, Yolanda).


Bottorf, Yolanda. “Families of the Fallen Support”. USO 2014.

šCitizen Journalist, 2014. “US War Casualties – Afghanistan (By date)”

ššDrill and Ceremonies. “Customs of Military Funerals” July 03.

šGould, Joe. “Social media complicate Army’s death notifications” Army Times. 2012.

š Staff “9/11 Attacks”. A&E Networks. 2010.

Marine Parents “Casualty Notification Procedures During Deployment” 2003-14.

National Funeral Directors Association. š”Military Repatriation and Funeral Protocol”. 2014.

“US War Death Statistic-Statistic Brain”. 2013 Statistic Brain Research Institute, publishing as Statistic Brain. April, 2014.



Civil War and Death

Like any other war, death was an inevitable occurrence during the Civil War. However, rather than just being unavoidable,  it had come to be expected. Not one family, soldier, or home went unaffected. In fact, death became such a universal happening that the state of living and geographical landmarks became personified by death. The South itself had been described as dead, and being “in a heap of ashes and bricks” (Nelson, p.232). Homes carried an impending aura of death, and not just people’s bodies, but their souls, were killed.

In sheer numbers, an estimated 750,000 soldiers were killed-some by combat according to Drew Faust, but twice as many died of disease. By count, the Union suffered a greater loss, with numbers around 400,000 while the Confederate mourned the deaths of about 300,000. However, proportionally the lives lost in the South exceeded those of the North, with the ratio being 3 Southerners dead for every Union soldier (Faust). The soldiers were not the only lives lost, with civilians numbering an estimated 50,000 deaths among women, children, and men at home. These deaths were caused by starvation, disease, and accidents in the workforce (Faust). There were over 30 explosions in factories that resulted in the death of many women and children (Nelson, 243).Image

The unfair image of death is one that brought distress to many families. Historian Amy Gagnon describes a “good death”, a death experienced with family by your side and a final religious cleansing with God. Because of a high infant mortality rate, the deaths of babies were better coped with, and because of age, the death of older citizens was expected. However, to sacrifice the life of a healthy, fit, nineteen year old boy was unjust and not a “good death”.

As far as notifying families of the deaths of their loved ones, there was no formal method or structure to follow. Normally a comrade of the soldier that had witnessed the death, or one that may have had personal friendship with the soldier, would write a letter to the family (Dunkleman). Typically they would address the letter with sympathy first, then delve into money matters and pensions, then describe how the soldier died. Otherwise, families relied on newspapers and obituaries to notify them if their soldier was dead or alive. For example, Connecticut published a newspaper that had “Rolls of the Missing Men” to identify dead or missing soldiers. Identification of soldiers was a problem that often hindered the notification to the family. Soldiers did not have military issued badges, and neither the Union nor the Confederacy had a grave registration (Faust).

Another issue posed was the consistent inability to return the bodies of soldiers home. Around this time, new methods of embalming were being experimented with, but many failed and soldiers whose bodies were returned were decomposed and rotten, as opposed to being preserved for a burial (Gagnon). Sometimes families were even horrified to discover that the bodies returned home to them were the wrong bodies. They had trains that were specifically run to transport the dead bodies, and to retrieve the bodies from the train station was an expensive endeavor, costing up to $2,000 in today’s currency, not including actual funeral and burial expenses. Some families were so distraught and desperate enough to go to the battlefields in search of the bodies in hops of filling a “dread void of uncertainty” (Faust).

Aforementioned, death came to be expected. Nelson quotes a white woman from Mississippi saying that it was a “shell expectant life,” (p. 264). And although death had come to be expected, when it hit home it was never easily coped with. Some families were lucky enough to have the bodies returned and be able to have a funeral service. The funeral and coffin industry increased during this time, with new styles of coffins and constant funerals to support the industry. In 1937, a new cemetery style emerged, but it wasn’t until the Civil War that this rural cemetery expanded significantly. Originally cemeteries were fenced off in church yards, very impersonal and not allowing grave visitations or the like. With this new emergence, cemeteries developed a park-like scene, with pathways and benches, and places for people to approach the graves and pay their respects (Gagnon).



As difficult as it was to deal with death during this time, the loss was amplified by the dehumanization of death. During battles of uncountable deaths, there was no way to effectively identify and bury every soldier. Bodies were heaped into trenches and left to rot with the horses and mules (Faust). Surviving troops stayed after battle to bury their comrades on the battlefield, often without proper burial tools and having to use their bare hands. One surgeon described a battlefield as “the dead being almost wholly unburied, and the stench arising from it was such as to breed a pestilence.” (Faust).

However, as the war went on people began to take note of the amplitude of lives lost and bodies destroyed. So in 1862 Congress allowed Lincoln to purchase protected land that he dedicated to the building of national cemeteries in Chattanooga, Stones River, Knoxville, Antietam, and Gettysburg (Faust). As the war began to subside, a reburial program began. These reburials were able to give proper funerals and identifications to 303,536 soldiers in national cemeteries (Faust). However, these national cemeteries were reserved only for Union soldiers, so Clara Barton establish an Office of Missing Men. She received 68,000 letters from families questioning the status of a missing family member, and she was able to retrieve information on 22,000 of those soldiers (Faust).

African Americans faced death in much the same way as whites, if not more violently and spitefully. They were captured, murdered, and beaten. However, the Union allowed the African Americans to serve as cooks, guards, and spies and 179,000 served, but over 75% of them were killed.

Death was a gruesome and vivid thing for every American during the Civil War. Not one house went untouched, and to this day it is the bloodiest war America has seen. Death was so astronomical that it became underrated and insignificant. However, the death of the soldiers has become honored and respected in memorials and statues, with the first memorial being erected in Connecticut in 1863 called the Berlin’s Soldier Monument (Gagnon).

Works Cited

Dunkelman, Mark H. “With a Trembling Hand and an Aching Heart” Letters of Notification of Death and Condolence 2013.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served. Death and Dying 02/2013.

Gagnon, Amy. Death and Mourning in the Civil War Era 2013

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877. : Oxford University Press, USA, .p. 244-281

The Vietnam War and Man Made Death

James Lieberman described death of soldiers in the Vietnam War as “man-made death” with modern weaponry and tactics, and deaths by combat outweighing deaths by disease by twice as much. This strayed from the norm of past wars, as those were characterized primarily by deaths by illness and poor health.

The Vietnam War was much more professional in the handling of casualties of soldiers. By the time the war ended, there were official databases and registrations that kept exact count of soldiers killed, as well as the demographics and information of those soldiers. The losses were recorded by the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS), which kept track of the date of death, and the Combat Area Casualties Current Files (CACCF) which updated the date of approximated death to the date declared dead (National Archives). Using these systems, the American military recorded 58,200 deaths of American soldiers, over 47,000 of those killed in hostile deaths (MRFA). 90% were between the ages of 18 and 26 (Lieberman, 710). 30% of the total deaths were draftees, 88.6% were Caucasian deaths, 12.5% were African Americans, and the remaining 1.1% were other races (MRFA). There were 766 POWs and 114 of them perished in captivity (MRFA).

Of the 58,200 military deaths, 8 of those were women (National Archives). All 8 women were nurses, most of which died while being transported to their stations. Carol Drazba and Elizabeth perished in a helicopter accident, and Eleanor Alexander and Hedwig Orlowski died in a plane crash. Sharon lane was stationed at a hospital that was attacked, and died by shrapnel. Annie Graham was a WWII and Korea vet, and at the age of 56 passed away from a stroke while on duty, and Pamela Donovan passed away from illness. Mary Klinker was a flight nurse, and the plane she was attending to crashed (MRFA).

As the registration of the casualties became an official process, the notification of the deaths to the families and the funeral ceremonies followed suit. The telegram was replaced by personal contact, carried out by a Vietnam Casualty Notification Officer (Johnson). To become a VCNO, there were official rules and regulations to follow, as well as classes to  attend, books to read, and videos to watch. This education allowed the VCNOs to approach the families in appropriate manners, and to prepare for the emotional toll it would take on the families, and the reactions they would display. The regulations stated that they arrive to the front door of the family between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., dressed in Class A uniform, identifying themselves by name and rank (Johnson). Following the introduction, they would proceed to inform the family, following one of four scripts: one for soldiers MIA, KIA, unidentified, or killed by friendly fire. Each individual script followed a universal statement that the soldier “[has] an important message to deliver from the secretary of the Army, and the Secretary asked [him] to express his deep regret…” (Johnson). The VCNO was always accompanied either by a Casualty Arrangement Officer, a chaplain, or both. The CAO sat down with the family to make funeral arrangements and discuss benefits and stipends. The chaplain was present to provide religious and emotional support. The VCNOs carried out an essential, but very traumatic job. The families often responded violently, and with anger towards the officers, sometimes blaming him for the loss.


Once the family was notified, there was a matter of burial. After the soldiers cause of death and identification were determined, the bodies were either shipped or flown home. To determine the COD, the bodies were put into body bags and lifted off the battlefield onto helicopter hueys (Freedman and Rhoads). Upon bringing the body bags to the hospital, the nurses would examine the body for battle wounds and the cause of death. Sometimes soldiers would accompany the nurses to identify who the body was. It was easier to identified COD in this war due to the advancements in medical technology (National Review). Also because combat wounds were primarily gunshot wounds, the body was mostly still intact, enabling fellow comrades to clearly identify the bodies. After the COD and identification were determined, the bodies were sent to registration to be recorded into the DCAS (Freedman and Rhoads). Funeral ceremonies involved military escorts, as well as American Flags being draped over the caskets. Taps was played on trumpets and prayers were said by ministers in gratitude for the soldier’s bravery and service to the country.


The technology of notifying and identification of deaths carried over into the action of killing as well. Lieberman’s description of death as “man-made” was far too accurate with this war, as the weapons were advancing and tactics were evolving. As far as American weaponry goes, we were highly dependent on air attack and infantry. In the Air, there were B-52 bombers that released over 8 millions tons of bombs on battlefields and towns alike ( Along with that was napalm, that was destructive due to the carbon monoxide that it released, causing deaths and future health impairments of survivors. They also sprayed over 19 million gallons of herbicide ( The infantry used was advanced and damaging as well, with M-60 and M-16 machine guns. The M-60s had a 2000 yard range, and shot 550 bullets a minute, and the M-16s had a shorter range but shot 700-900 rounds per minute on automatic  (


The Viet Cong challenged our weaponry with their own technology. American soldiers suffered wounds from missiles, machine guns, and booby traps. They used SA-7 Grail Missiles to oppose American air attacks. The AK-47 were their machine guns that shot 600 rounds per minute, but were much more accurate and explosive than American machine guns ( They also had more primitive methods of attack, such as using simple clothing and weapons to blend in with citizens, and take advantage of surprise attacks. On top of this they had booby traps, the most used being punji stakes – sharpened bamboo sticks placed on the bottom of pits hidden under leaves ( Finally they made use of American weapons, stealing them and taking them apart, manipulating the pieces into new weapons.

In conclusion, the Vietnam war was destructive, having the 4th highest number of deaths in the history of American wars. Over 58,000 lives were lost, 18,000 women widowed, and with “modern weapons of mass destruction making a mockery of grief” (Lieberman, 718).


Freedman, Dan and Jacqueline Rhoads, editors. Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, Inc., 1987. pp. 12 – 17. Staff “Weapons of the Vietnam War” A&E Networks. April 2014.

Johnson, Alex. “Breaking the Bad News”.  MSNBC Interactive. 2003.

Lieberman, E. James. “American Families and the Vietnam War.” Journal of Marriage and Family 33.4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (1971): 709-21. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Mobile Riverine Force Association.  “Vietnam War Statistics”.  March 2014.

National Archives “Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War”.  August 2013.

National Review “The Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War” News Report, 1984.


World War II and Death

While the numbers of deaths of Americans was greater in World War II than most past wars, the magnitude of death was not nearly the same. This is because the war was fought far from home, and families were not witnessing the blood and battles first hand. Moreover, the 417,000 American deaths was few compared to the millions of lives lost in other countries (WWII Museum).

Other countries held much hostility for America, especially Germany and Japan, evident through the prison camps they had. Prisoners of War suffered exceptionally, and most soldiers would rather face death than be a prisoner of war. Germany alone had 94,000 soldiers held hostage,  and of those 1,701 died. Japan had a less soldiers kept prisoner, but a larger proportion of those that died. The captivated 27,000, and 11,107 of those soldiers died (Reynolds, 2002).  Causes of death in the prison camps were unsanitary, cramped conditions, lack of food and materials, and torture by the prison guards. Two particular events resulted in a significant number of losses: the Bataan Death March, and hell ships. The Bataan Death March was the relocation of POWs from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in Japan. The Japanese soldiers beat, robbed,  tortured, and killed the American prisoners (Reynolds, 2002). 80,000 Americans were relocated, 650 soldiers died, and 10,000 Philippine citizens were murdered. Hell ships were Japanese war ships that contained American POWs.  Unknowing of this, American ships attacked the Japanese, killing 21,093 of their own soldiers (Reynolds, 2002). Survivors were blown into the water, and either died there or shot by Japanese soldiers.  Just like other wars, POWs suffered greatly, soldiers and citizens alike, and were a significant proportion of the American deaths.

American POWs in Japan

But unlike other wars, the notification of death was much more reliable and consistent, making the reality of the loss just as vivid.  Newspapers announced the deaths of soldiers in the obituaries, telegrams and letters were sent, and losses mourned. Telegrams were the most common form of communication when notifying families of the loss of a loved one (Holland, 2009). They were most often hand delivered by couriers of the Western Union, and followed a rigid format beginning with the dreaded words “I regret to inform you…” and then addressed financial matters and how the body could be returned home.  Along with telegrams, letters were also sent sometimes. On most occasions, this was due to families’ letters to the soldiers being unanswered, and commanders or fellow comrades taking it upon themselves to respond with the grave news. Finally, once families received the news of their loss, they would often announce it to their community by raising flags with gold stars, calling themselves “Gold Star Mothers” (Teaster).

WWII Telegram

Respectably, once the news was delivered, the bodies soon after followed. Bringing the bodies home was also more advanced and reliable than it had been in the past. Once soldiers’s bodies were collected from the battlefield, the were temporarily buried in cemeteries in Europe.  At the end of the war in 1945,  bodies were retrieved from those cemeteries and sent home so they could be buried with proper burials with their families (Holhut, 2011). The families had three burial options: the bodies could be sent home to be buried there, sent to a national cemetery for burial, or buried in American cemeteries in the Philippines and Hawaii (Holhut, 2011).  No matter the family’s decision, the transportation of the body was paid for by the government.  Out of respect and gratitude to the soldier, ever casket had military escorts (Holhut, 2011).

WWII Military Escorts

Text Sources:

Holhut, Randolph T., “THe Forgotten Story of How the Fallen of WWII CAm eHome” The Bradenton Times. May 2011.

Holland, N. E. “Delivering Bad News: Western Union” Speak Its Name. Dec. 2009.

Nation World War II Museum, “By the Numbers: The U.S. Military”

Reynolds, Gary K. “U.S. Prisoners of War and Civilian AMerican Citizens Captured and Interned by Japan in World War II” Dec. 2002.

Teaster, Gerald. “Pacolet and World War II” Junior History Press.