News | Oct. 14, 2021

Green Fields of France: Mortuary Affairs in a Peer Conflict

By Timothy Dwyer Joint Force Quarterly 103

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Major Timothy Dwyer, USA, is a Planner at the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Air Force and Army Servicemembers carry litter with simulated casualty at Ali al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, November 6, 2020, during training for handling remains after major accident (U.S. Air Force/Kaleb Mayfield)
Air Force and Army Servicemembers carry litter with simulated casualty at Ali al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, November 6, 2020, during training for handling remains after major accident (U.S. Air Force/Kaleb Mayfield)
Air Force and Army Servicemembers carry litter with simulated casualty at Ali al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, November 6, 2020, during training for handling remains after major accident (U.S. Air Force/Kaleb Mayfield)
Air Force and Army Servicemembers carry litter with simulated casualty at Ali al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, November 6, 2020, during training for handling remains after major accident (U.S. Air Force/Kaleb Mayfield)
Photo By: Tech. Sgt. Kaleb Mayfield
VIRIN: 201106-F-DO014-0336

We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly . . . and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.1

—Colin Powell

Secretary Powell’s remark highlights an enduring facet of high-intensity conflict between peer adversaries: Past wars between Great Powers generated enormous casualties that far outpaced the ability of the United States to process Servicemembers’ remains and return them to their families. These considerable casualties belie a state of conflict that is largely foreign to the modern American military and public alike. Fortunately, the United States has not faced such a challenge since 1945 and has enjoyed an unprecedented streak of asymmetric conflicts since the 1980s. Panama, Grenada, the first Gulf War, Bosnia, and the ongoing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan all have pitted lesser powers against the U.S. military juggernaut. American lives were sacrificed in all these conflicts, yet these lives were lost at orders of magnitude less than what is typical in a war with a peer adversary. As a result, operational commanders now have unrealistic expectations of loss and a lack of mortuary affairs capability available to them.

This disparity poses a threat to the future operational effectiveness of American forces. Commanders must integrate realistic casualty expectations into their formations and institute plans that will minimize the impact of high-casualty conflicts on their ability to accomplish objectives. They can achieve this goal in three key ways. First, to lessen the blow of casualties sustained in a peer conflict, accurate casualty expectations must be part of formations’ training and organizational culture. Second, mortuary affairs cannot be a “hand wave” during training exercises; it must be exercised as a crucial function in maintaining a unit’s operational effectiveness in combat. Finally, planners must specify organic mortuary affairs capabilities within their organization that can be flexed to fulfill a need beyond what modern experience has demonstrated. Recent history has shown the implications of high-casualty events, and it is essential that American forces are prepared mentally and organizationally to win in the face of tragedy.

Framing the Problem

On the morning of July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was struck by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine. This incident, the result of a misidentification by Russian-backed separatists, killed 298 people from 10 countries as the plane disintegrated over several miles of open farmland.2 Hundreds of bodies of innocent men, women, and children were strewn across the debris field, requiring a mass-casualty response by local authorities. Although this event happened in an active warzone that sees regular casualties, the number of dead completely overwhelmed the separatists and regular Ukrainian forces alike. Neither side possessed the capacity to recover, process, and store human remains on that scale, and the local security conditions forced most of the bodies to lay exposed for several days before recovery efforts could begin in earnest. Local forces did not have any of the materials needed to collect and store the remains with dignity, and many bodies were wrapped in garbage bags before being loaded onto commandeered trains for transport to a nearby airfield.3

This modern failure to properly process remains in a warzone reveals the types of challenges commanders are likely to face on future battlefields. Such treatment of civilian remains was universally viewed as unacceptable, and equal treatment of American war dead would degrade fighting units’ morale. The effect would only be exacerbated as photographs, videos, and social media posts referencing the mishandling of casualties became widespread. This type of neglect for human remains and ill treatment of casualties is usually not done intentionally. As stated, recovering and processing human remains is a labor-intensive task that can quickly outstrip local capabilities. Yet such difficulties are not restricted to foreign militaries and insurgents. The U.S. military itself has recently experienced the difficulties associated with correctly remediating mass-casualty incidents—and the amount of effort involved.

At 2:38 a.m. on August 6, 2011, a CH-47 carrying a U.S. Special Operations Command assault force was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, killing all 38 on board.4 The downing of this helicopter, callsign Extortion 17, was the single deadliest event throughout Operation Enduring Freedom and the single deadliest event in the history of the command. Other American forces in the area, along with reinforcements flown in via helicopter, secured the crash site within a few hours. Although all remains were collected at the crash site, they were not extracted until late that day, and the full recovery process took 4 days to complete.5 The recovery and site mitigation of the Extortion 17 crash was an extremely difficult operation requiring hundreds of personnel and dozens of air assets in an asymmetric threat environment. Despite the threat, the recovery operation was largely unhampered by the enemy—fewer than 50 enemy combatants had been in the area when the aircraft was shot down.6

Even without enemy interference, the U.S. military and its coalition allies in Afghanistan lacked the resources to separate and identify the Servicemembers’ remains once they were recovered. Thus, this operation demonstrated both the effort required to recover remains and the resources needed to process them for transport back to the United States. Unlike in the MH17 example, this operation was undertaken by a professional military with the manpower, air assets, and logistic systems available to transport remains from the point of death to the processing site. Despite such resources, it was reported that “all bodily remains salvaged from the crash site were incinerated in bulk” by the small mortuary affairs team at Bagram Airfield.7 This action was viewed as necessary due to the assets available and was in the absence of the types of threats that would be posed by a peer adversary. The mortuary affairs process for Extortion 17 occurred unhampered, yet the number of resources dedicated is not likely to be available to operational commanders in a peer conflict, and alternate capabilities must be identified.

A key component in the combat effectiveness of American military formations, the morale of U.S. Servicemembers is singularly vulnerable to the effects of a high-casualty conflict.8 The examples above give a general sense of the complexity and difficulties associated with recovering and processing large numbers of remains in single events. Such challenges would only be exacerbated in continued, high-intensity combat operations, enemy air interdictions, enemy conventional force offensives, and the dynamic nature of war with a peer adversary. There is a chance that mass casualty events such as MH17 and Extortion 17 would be the norm, not the exception, in such a conflict. To maintain combat capability in such an environment, operational commanders must adapt their approaches to mortuary affairs.9

A Look at Current Capabilities

The U.S. Army is primarily responsible for processing and evacuating remains from a theater of operations.10 This charge is accomplished by mortuary affairs personnel assigned to the Army’s two mortuary affairs companies, the 54th and 111th Quartermaster Companies; they are tasked with establishing and operating the entire mortuary affairs evacuation process within a theater.11 These two companies may also have their modular capabilities assigned to specific operational commanders under a geographic combatant command (GCC) in order to affect the collection and processing of remains at the tactical and operational levels. However, these two companies (340 total Soldiers at full manning) represent the entirety of the Army’s mortuary affairs capability in the land domain and the primary joint force for the processing of remains.12

Every named operation will have an established theater mortuary affairs evacuation point that serves the GCC for the entirety of the operation.13 At full capacity, these evacuation points are capable of processing and “coordinating the evacuation for” 250 remains per day.14 They are also able to embalm up to 50 remains a day to facilitate the dignified transfer of remains from the theater of operation to the point of burial in the United States.15 If evacuation is not feasible, the GCC is authorized to establish temporary interment sites within the theater.16 These doctrinal capabilities depend on the manning, equipment, and support provided to the mortuary affairs specialists assigned to these two units. These numbers also rely on the ability of units at the operational level and below to secure the remains of their fallen comrades and evacuate them rearward to mortuary affairs collection points and into the remains evacuation process.

As recent mass-casualty events demonstrated, the recovery and evacuation of remains in a tactical environment is a daunting and labor-intensive process even without the intervention of enemy forces. The established theater mortuary affairs evacuation point likely will not be the element that hampers the U.S. military’s ability to process remains. Rather, one limiting factor will be the ability of units at the operational and tactical levels to secure and evacuate remains at their areas of operations. These are also the units that face the most detrimental effects from incurred casualties and are most at risk of a loss in combat capability due to the physical and mental requirements inherent in evacuating remains. The other limiting factor will be the ability of the GCC to evacuate remains from the theater back to the United States for final disposition. This constraint will likely require the establishment of temporary foreign interment sites, which then frees up intertheater transportation assets.17

Operational units’ ability to evacuate remains in a timely manner is not well established throughout the joint force, and the issues associated with evacuating human remains are exacerbated in the maritime domain. The evacuation of human remains on land, although labor intensive, follows many of the same processes and logistic pipelines established for an operation. The same is not true for Navy ships, which have limited storage capabilities and are likely to lack air evacuation assets for human remains while engaged in peer conflict.18 The only naval vessels with designated morgues are the hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, and each has a mortuary capacity of 22 bodies.19 Burial at sea, normally reserved for veterans who specifically request this ceremony, is likely to be the most viable option for Navy commanders who incur high casualties in a peer conflict.

Bridging the Gap

Major operations will likely have established theater mortuary affairs evacuation plans and logistic pipelines that facilitate the movement of remains. Burial at sea and temporary foreign interment, seen most recently in the Falklands War, are likely to be used to ease the air transportation requirements placed on U.S. Transportation Command. However, as stated, the onus will be on commanders at the operational level and below to secure and evacuate their own fallen comrades into the mortuary affairs system. This effort must be accomplished without severely affecting the unit’s combat effectiveness and must be addressed prior to the onset of hostilities. Commanders can integrate mortuary affairs into their current formations in three key ways.

First, reasonable casualty expectations must become part of the organizational and training culture of military units across all domains. The reality of peer conflict is that both sides are likely to incur casualties at levels that have not been seen in recent memory. Commanders must strive to drive home the reality that Servicemembers will die in future conflicts. Extortion 17, Operation Red Wings, and the USS Stark and USS Cole incidents all provide examples of the types of casualties that can be expected.20 Rather than disparate and exceptional incidents, such casualty-producing events are likely to be the norm in a peer conflict—and several such events could occur simultaneously. Commanders can lessen the detrimental psychological impact of such casualties by building a resilient organizational culture that fully understands peer conflict and its human toll. Integrating mortuary affairs into the modern joint training environment will reinforce this awareness.

Second, mortuary affairs must be deliberately and realistically exercised in all combat training events. Few training events treat the evacuation of human remains as anything more than an ancillary task, or a hand wave, that occurs as a series of administrative moves or post-action discussion. Instead, trainings must force units to exercise the evacuation of fallen comrades from the site of death to a mortuary affairs collection point. Such instruction should be facilitated using casualty mannequins and remains pouches, which match the realism applied to medical trauma training.21 All Servicemembers must understand and practice the tasks associated with the collection of human remains in a combat environment. Sailors, for example, must know how human remains will be moved and collected on their ship. These essential tasks directly contribute to the combat readiness of all formations and will affect how those units maintain that readiness once hostilities commence.

Third, operational planners must identify organic capabilities within their formations that can be flexed to accomplish mortuary affairs requirements that are beyond what recent experience has dictated. It is not enough for Servicemembers to understand that people will be killed or that they will be responsible for collecting the bodies of their comrades. Commanders must identify assets internal to units at the operational level and below that can be used to facilitate the mortuary affairs process. Ship refrigeration units, company or battalion logistic vehicles, rotary-wing assets, and other capabilities must be specifically identified down to the tactical level prior to the initiation of combat operations. All personnel involved must know and understand these requirements so that the collection and evacuation of high volumes of human remains become a battle drill, not a contingency.

Commanders can thus minimize the detrimental impact on combat effectiveness by creating an organizational culture that internalizes realistic casualty expectations, training in remains evacuation, and identifying relevant evacuation assets. The psychological impact of seeing friends and comrades die cannot be lessened through culture, planning, and training, but the harm on combat effectiveness can be reduced by building with formations a muscle memory that will allow Servicemembers to continue to operate in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Is This Necessary?

Many counterarguments may be put forward to delegitimize the requirement to achieve further mortuary affairs integration into existing force structures. Chief among these arguments is the consistent inability of researchers, analysts, planners, and leaders to accurately project casualties for an operation. Fortunately, these estimates are consistently higher than the number of casualties actually incurred, and this inaccuracy casts doubt on the likelihood of future conflicts outpacing current mortuary affairs capabilities. This line of argument continues that additional mortuary affairs requirements are unnecessary because they are addressing a problem that does not exist. Operation Desert Storm offers a poignant example of the level of overestimation that is likely to occur when assessing the cost of a future armed conflict.

On the eve of the first Gulf War, military planners and leaders were projecting total American casualties between 30,000 and 40,000 for the effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.22 Those in the military were not alone in these high estimates. Open-source reports and civilian analysts expected “160 to 170” American fatalities a day for the entirety of the operation.23 American forces in fact suffered 147 hostile deaths for the entirety of the conflict, well below the prewar estimates.24 Some may argue that this type of overestimation is still rampant in casualty projections and that any peer conflict is likely to result in casualty levels far below current dire projections. Therefore, the existing mortuary affairs force structure is adequate for future conflicts, and any attempt to normalize combat fatalities within organizational cultures would, in and of itself, be both alarmist and detrimental to morale.

Although casualty estimates for Desert Storm were off by orders of magnitude, the disparity between the combat capabilities of the two opposing forces was equally large. Desert Storm was not a peer conflict; therefore, it cannot act as a corollary for future casualty projections against a peer adversary. Correlating the Gulf War with a future war between Great Powers mistakes the nature of peer conflict. A future war against a peer adversary will see the U.S. military contested in every domain in a theater of operations. Rather than Desert Storm, one must look to the Falklands War and the Yom Kippur War for contemporary examples of the human cost of peer conflict. Both involved adversaries to whom the outcome of the conflict was not a forgone conclusion, and the resulting casualties belie a combat intensity beyond recent American experience. Casualty estimates for a future peer conflict may still miss the mark, but it is a mistake to assume that the first 21st-century war between superpowers will be anything less than devastating. American military units at all echelons must internalize this reality to ensure they remain combat capable while enduring—according to modern eyes—enormous casualties.

Further Research

The long-term detrimental effects of combat casualties on military Servicemembers are well established. However, how those casualties immediately impact units’ operational effectiveness requires more research.25 Although these detrimental effects are difficult to quantify, it remains probable that Servicemembers all would see a substantive erosion of their combat effectiveness when faced with the deaths of their comrades. Commanders at all levels will continue to strive to reduce casualties to the best of their abilities, but Servicemembers who are killed in combat must be recovered and evacuated with the utmost respect and dignity. The handling of Servicemembers’ remains from the point of death to the point of interment is a critical process that directly contributes to combat readiness. Current military systems lack adequate capacity to evacuate human remains at scale from combat units to the mortuary affairs evacuation pipeline, and this deficiency must be addressed.

A future peer conflict is likely to cause casualties far in excess of those of recent asymmetric conflicts undertaken by the United States. Enemy airstrikes, antiship missile attacks, large-scale offensive operations, long-range precision fires, and other peer capabilities all pose significant lethal threats. The Falklands War and the Yom Kippur War demonstrate the enhanced lethality of peer conflict, with hundreds or thousands killed in short time frames.26 The American military has not faced such a peer threat since 1945 and is therefore ill prepared organizationally and culturally for what high-intensity peer conflict entails. Operational and tactical commanders must make mortuary affairs and remains evacuation a priority now so that those future requirements are not eroding their combat capabilities when those capabilities will matter most. JFQ


1 Colin Powell, “The Secretary of State’s Remarks at the World Economic Forum,” Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2003, Department of State Online Archive, available at <>.

2 Gerald Toal and John O’Laughlin, “‘Why Did MH17 Crash?’: Blame Attribution, Television News and Public Opinion in Southeastern Ukraine, Crimea and the De Facto States of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria,” Geopolitics 23, no. 4 (2018), 882–916.

3 “MH17 and the War in Ukraine: Collateral Damage,” The Economist, June 26, 2014.

4 Garry Reid, Afghanistan: Honoring the Heroes of Extortion 17, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on National Security, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 113th Cong., 2nd sess., February 27, 2014, available at <>.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Kandida Purnell, “Grieving, Valuing, and Viewing Differently: The Global War on Terror’s American Toll,” International Political Sociology 12, no. 2 (2018).

8 Ben Connable et al., Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2018), available at <>.

9 David C. Gompert, Astrid Stuth Cevallos, and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), available at <>.

10 Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 1300.22, Mortuary Affairs Policy (Washington, DC: DOD, December 8, 2017), available at <>.

11 U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, “Joint Mortuary Affairs Center: History,” November 20, 2020, available at <>.

12 Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 4-46, Contingency Fatality Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, December 17, 2014).

13 Joint Publication (JP) 4-0, Joint Logistics (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, May 8, 2019).

14 ATP 4-46.

15 Ibid.

16 DODD 1300.22.

17 JP 4-0, appendix M.

18 Naval Medical Command Instruction 5360.1, Decedent Affairs Manual (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Navy, September 17, 1987), available at <>.

19 See “USNS Mercy (T-AH 19),” 2018, available at <>.

20 Operations Red Wings and Red Wings II, made famous by the Lone Survivor book and movie, were counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan in 2005 that saw the downing of a CH-47 and high casualties. The USS Stark was struck by Iraqi Exocet missiles in 1987, and USS Cole was hit by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in 2000; both ships were severely damaged and incurred high casualties.

21 Timothy P. Barela, “Mannequins Help Improve Casualty Care,” U.S. Air Force, May 19, 2006, available at <>.

22 Brian L. Hollandsworth, “Personnel Replacements Operations During Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield” (master’s thesis, Army Command and General Staff College, 2015), Defense Technical Information Center, available at <>.

23 “Potential War Casualties Put at 100,000: Gulf Crisis: Fewer U.S. Troops Would Be Killed or Wounded than Iraq Soldiers, Military Experts Predict,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1990, available at: <>.

24 Defense Casualty Analysis System, “U.S. Military Casualties—Persian Gulf War Casualty Summary Desert Storm,” updated daily, available at <>.

25 Norman M. Camp, U.S. Army Psychiatry in the Vietnam War: New Challenges in Extended Counterinsurgency Warfare (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2014).

26 Netanel Lorch, “The Yom Kippur War (October 1973),” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2013, available at <>.