Attrition: Collecting The Dead


March 31, 2024: One difference between the Ukrainian and Russian armies is their treatment of the dead. The Russians just leave their dead behind and move on. The Ukrainian and NATO armies identify and bury their war dead. The Americans have been doing this since the 18th century, especially with the bodies of dead officers and enlisted men who performed heroically.

In 1862, during the American Civil War, the government established a graves registration service that would collect, identify, and bury bodies of dead soldiers. During the Civil War it was customary for most soldiers to carry some kind of durable identification device attached to a string soldiers wore around their necks at all times. As a result, about 60 percent of the Union Army soldiers killed in action could be identified and their families notified. The U.S. Army had tried to establish such a system before the 186os but was only partially successful. It was during the 1899 Spanish-American War that the U.S. Army first tried to equip all soldiers with dog tags. By 1917, when the United States entered World War I, all American troops were supplied with dog tags and the army had established graves registration units to collect the American dead, identify them so families could be notified and ensure that the bodies were buried in graves that included identification of the dead soldier. The new graves registration units could not find all the dead, and that led to building monuments of the unknown soldiers who died. Graves registration activities weren't new, the Roman Army had been doing it two thousand years earlier. This ceased during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the sixth century, and such organized graves registration activities only reappeared in the 18th century but did not become universal in Western armies until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As recently as the 2022 Ukraine War, dead Russian soldiers did not have an organized graves registration service. Russia tried to establish one during their 1980s war in Afghanistan. During the Afghan War most of the 15,000 Russian soldiers killed in action were placed in sealed coffins and sent back to their families. Russian losses in Ukraine have been more than 20 times the losses suffered in Afghanistan. The Russian dead can be identified by the military document, a small passport size document containing basic information of the soldier and his military career. Unlike dog tags, which are always worn around the neck, the military passport is easier to get lost or destroyed in combat. Russia prefers to bury their own dead in mass graves, after first collecting all the military passports so they can maintain a reliable overall number of dead and be able to compile information from the passports.

The Ukrainians were more thorough in identifying their own dead and those of dead Russians they came across. Early in the war the Ukrainians embarrassed Russia by notifying families of Russian dead that their son was dead. These grave registration activities have become common in Western armies but are only haphazardly applied in the Russian army. Ukrainian graves registration units diligently collect Ukrainian dead but note that they encounter about 15 dead Russians for every dead Ukrainian soldier collected.

In wartime Ukraine, collecting the dead is more dangerous because frequent presence of enemy UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) performing surveillance duties using their digital cameras. If one of these UAVs spots any Ukrainian troops on the ground, they can call in artillery fire. Because of this danger, Ukrainians delay their graves registration activities until an area with bodies is no longer in a combat zone. Russia and Ukraine have cooperated in exchanging prisoners as well as bodies of the dead. The Russians are eager to get the bodies of dead officers back while the Ukrainians want to recover all their dead. For Ukrainians identifying all the dead is appreciated by the families of the dead. For the Russians, when a son goes into the army, he is considered as good as dead until, or unless, he returns home alive.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close