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Mortuary Affairs as a Strategic Priority

The Integrated Review aims to produce an army that is prepared for future wars, but Mortuary Affairs capabilities do not appear to have been given sufficient consideration to develop a resilient service. A perceived failure to respond to this crucial yet specialist area creates a range of operational and reputational risks which may strain public relations in future wars.

Following the disbandment of the Army War Graves Service (AWGS), the British Army has continuously reduced its capacity to recover and bury fallen soldiers. Low numbers of fatalities have ensured that units have had the capacity to respond to their own dead without the deployment of a complete AWGS, and the War Graves module has been retired from the training suite, but without sufficient replacement to respond to the requirements of the retitled Mortuary Affairs capabilities.

The term ‘Mortuary Affairs’ has aligned UK practice with US terminology and doctrine, following close collaboration with the US Armed Forces to provide these services during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer has made clear that the UK may not be able to depend on the same support to respond to deaths within a joint capacity in future wars – particularly if the US deems the conflict to be an effort to ‘remake other countries’.

Within British Army doctrine, Mortuary Affairs services for the land environment context include responsibilities for the following tasks: battlefield fatality clearance, sanitation and identification, preparation for repatriation, and repatriation. These are highly specialised tasks, which require specific scientific education along with an awareness of relevant legislation. While training syllabi do refer to these issues, they are not detailed enough to ensure confidence in practice, failing to address the lack of capacity within the current and proposed Army structures. The syllabi are not detailed enough to prepare an individual for the often gruesome realities of forensic recovery. Consequently, the response is likely to fall short in future conflicts.

Processes described in training documents such as the Army Medical Supply Battlecraft Syllabus do not acknowledge the civilian expectations of repatriation within a flag-draped coffin – a service coordinated by the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre – as provided during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it is not possible to meet these expectations, this may affect public support for a prolonged war, and may also result in a legal challenge. Deaths incurred during operations fall under the remit of the Coroner’s Office (thus potentially requiring a post-mortem or inquest performed within the UK). Despite the public and legal obligations, and the recognition that logistical capacity is critically important, there is little guidance on how human remains might be transported within the logistics infrastructure or processes employed by those responsible for Mortuary Affairs.

In the past, 23 Pioneer Regiment RLC had Mortuary Affairs capabilities, before its disbandment in 2014. At present, 17 Port and Maritime Regiment RLC has the responsibility of responding to Mortuary Affairs, among its other duties. The assignment of these intensive duties, described as a ‘specialist logistic responsibility’, to a single regiment is problematic for multiple reasons, even with the support of reserve component 165 Port Regiment RLC.

Firstly, a single regiment cannot respond to sustained casualties across multiple fronts. The current structure presents not only the risk of being under-resourced across multiple fronts, but also the potential elimination of a significant proportion of trained staff if a majority are deployed to a single location.

Secondly, the current structure does not acknowledge existing logistical constraints which may limit the ability to transport human remains for storage and, ultimately, repatriation. The limits on the logistical supply chain reported during the war in Afghanistan appear to be further exacerbated by the structure proposed within the Integrated Review, which does not respond to the potential for mass fatalities within landlocked countries without seaport access, or for circumstances where recovery by helicopter is not possible.

The response to the fallen should be considered not just in relation to operational duties, but as an issue relevant to national resilience

Thirdly, the limited focus on Mortuary Affairs following the withdrawal from Afghanistan may have had the result that very few personnel with the required skills, knowledge and experience have been retained. This raises questions as to the resilience of Mortuary Affairs capabilities in future wars. If the majority of skilled personnel are deployed to respond to a high volume of fatalities, whether as a result of isolated events or sustained losses, who will train incoming soldiers? Given the potential for engagement with the Coroner’s Office, an awareness of forensic matters such as evidence control, recordkeeping and contamination will need to be taught. This places an evidential burden on the British Army and Her Majesty’s Forces more broadly as a result of a policy which treats fatalities as though they are the result of criminal activity until proven otherwise.

By treating Mortuary Affairs as an operational area which will be met through an allied response, the Army has failed to recognise the consequences of a loss of organisational memory. There appears to have been little effort to redeploy those who gained the required experience within Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure that their skills are retained. This is important given that exposure to human remains can be distressing, necessitating voluntary service for such work to maintain sanitary requirements to a forensic standard, to manage staff retention and to limit the potential for inflicting trauma upon those who provide such services.

A failure to respond to Mortuary Affairs may inhibit the ability to maintain operational hygiene, given the sanitary risks presented by the presence of human remains. Within minutes of death, insects are attracted to a human corpse, colonising the body within hours if it is not stored appropriately. The smell and sight of corpses, bodily fluids and masses of insects on the battlefield has been recorded in war diaries and communications for hundreds of years as a distressing encounter for soldiers and civilians within conflict zones. Such exposure may have a severe psychological impact on soldiers, and has the potential to damage morale more broadly, while also harming civilian support for an ongoing war.

These factors demonstrate that the response to the fallen should be considered not just in relation to operational duties, but as an issue relevant to national resilience. If the Army is unable – or even unwilling – to rebuild these capabilities, it may prove beneficial to engage in reactive partnerships with private organisations which provide emergency and forensic services. Bringing such services into the Army machine during a war would not be unprecedented.

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission (CWGC) was formed by Sir Fabian Ware in 1917 after Ware’s mobile unit of the British Red Cross was incorporated into the Army, having developed a workforce to respond to the specific issue of fallen soldiers on the battlefield. The organisation helped to manage public relations and communications, bridging the gap between governmental policy and operational reality. As the CWGC no longer exists in a format which could provide these services, the British Army must review the response it seeks to provide in future wars and ensure it is operationally, legally and morally fit for purpose.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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