The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument in Arlington National Cemetery which honors the memory of unknown American soldiers who have died in combat. While the use of dog tags and other identification tools has significantly reduced the number of unidentified American remains, unknown remains do still exist, and people are still working to identify these soldiers. Many nations have some version of a Tomb of Unknown Soldier or Tomb of Unknowns, reflecting a widespread desire to recognize and honor deceased soldiers who have remained unidentified.
Officially, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has no formal name, although the staff at Arlington refer to it as the “Tomb of Unknowns,” as do the members of the Third United States Infantry, who are tasked with guarding the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Men selected for duty as guards are of high moral and military caliber, and they follow a very set schedule, down to the number of steps it takes to walk in front of the tomb (21), and the number of seconds used to pause at either end of the tomb (also 21).
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in 1921 as a way of honoring the unidentified dead of the First World War. Unidentified remains buried in France were exhumed and repatriated to the United States, where they were buried inside a white marble sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is decorated with carvings of Peace, Victory, and Valor, along with wreaths representing the major battles of the First World War, and it carries the inscription “here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
In 1956, President Eisenhower decided to honor the unknown dead of the Second World War and the Korean War as well, entombing two additional unknown soldiers under marble plaques in front of the monument. In 1984, an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was also buried at the site, although he was later exhumed and identified. The vault designated for an unknown Vietnam soldier remains empty. All of the soldiers in this tomb have been awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, and some have additional decorations as well.
Many visitors to Arlington like to stop by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay their respects, with Presidents traditionally laying a wreath at the Tomb of Unknowns on Memorial Day. Thanks to improvements in DNA testing and other identification techniques, unknown American dead from conflicts as far back as the Civil War are constantly being identified by forensic anthropologists and other specialists, but it remains likely that some soldiers will never be identified, and the Tomb of Unknowns serves as a monument to their sacrifices.