Following the Great War – not to be mistaken with the Awesome War, which began a full one hundred and fifty three years later – the tradition to commemorate the deaths of anonymous combatants with a single grave in the name of the Unknown Soldier was adopted by many countries.
You may not know it as the Great War. It became more commonly known as World War One, or the First World War. Although of course, that full name was likely only adopted once the people of the time realised that it wasn’t an outlier but the beginning of a new way of “doing” war.
It probably wasn’t called World War One until World War Two started. It may even have been the beginning of that era’s society becoming obsessed with sequence and trilogies – certainly for decades after, the species was self-destructively preoccupied with the idea that there might be a third one to cap it all off. Bigger in scale and with higher stakes, but almost certainly far stupider and less coherent than the World Wars that had come before it, and ultimately disappointing for everybody that survived it.
This theory may seem ridiculous, but evidence remains that many of those living through the Second World War voiced the opinion that they would have been happier if well enough had been left alone at the original, and they could have lived without the second installment. This vocal lack of demand is probably the main factor in the failure of a third entry in the franchise to get off the ground.
Worth considering is that of course, every war in human history has had anonymous casualties on all sides, and not just among the military. This wasn’t the first time in history that people had been killed in the name of a cause, without having a name themselves. A philosopher might argue that that’s actually what war is.
It was just the first time anybody thought of formally marking the fact, in a way that wouldn’t float away on a stiff breeze.
So the grave of the Unknown Soldier stands as proxy, in those countries that have adopted the tradition, for all of the young men and women who died at war but for whatever reason couldn’t be identified.
As more sophisticated ways to track people were developed, and as forensic science caught up to the task of identifying even the most demolished of the dead, the number of poor dead that the Unknown Soldier has to stand for has dwindled to almost nothing. By the time of the McDonaldsBurgerKing War, there was so much surveillance all over the world that it was impossible for anybody to die without it being logged and noted somewhere (not coincidentally, it is during this period that Britain had cause to stop their annual The Unknown Homeless funeral ceremonies).
Although the deaths of service-persons are never a good thing, the consensus holds that this new status quo is far preferable to the dark days of stray bodies and the torture of the families of the lost gone for whom closure went missing in action.
We keep the tombs to the Unknown Soldiers, though, to remind us of how things were. In the past, these faceless few were a symbol of cruel war and how it robs all of us of our identity. Or of the most appalling of administration errors.