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The War Memorial’s Tooth

by Jeffrey Toney

It was a cloudless, sunny day. An azure sky reflected off of the tooth, making me queasy. There it was, resolute in concrete at the Iraq war memorial, obscenely out of place, jarring next to the sterile polished marble engraved with names of the fallen heroes. Many had theories of the tooth’s origin, many were wrong.

Experts agreed that it should never have been there in the first place. Many measures, committees and discussions ensured the memorial’s focal point of quiet contemplation and mourning for the nation’s ultimate sacrifice. But somehow it slipped through. I know how. It was nothing more complicated than simple human error.

It was a simple, yet profound, step in the process of constructing this enormous memorial. The designer wanted an elegant fountain to be a gathering point for mourners and citizens alike, from which emanated mountain spring water dancing off of a concrete base, comprised of Iraqi sand, pebbles – and, yes, ashes from an unknown soldier. The designer insisted that the soldier’s ashes be embedded into the concrete as a reminder that the memorial was more than artistically placed construction materials to honor the fallen – the fallen were the memorial. The unknown soldier had been obliterated from existence by an IED (improvised explosive device) strategically placed by a profoundly unhappy, unemployed youth seeking belonging in a religious extremist terrorist group that promised ultimate joy beyond the grim realities of Iraq.

Followed untold times by funeral homes across the globe, cremation of human remains into ashes {ashes to ashes, dust to dust} does not always go as planned. It is a curious process of cleansing, from the abject ugliness of death to the purity of ashes, meshing perfectly with the fecund minerality of earth, of clay. Its appeal is completion of an eternal cycle of birth to death to birth again. But in this case, it left behind unintended remains: the tooth. It was a simple oversight by the incinerator’s operator, perhaps not allowing sufficient time at the required 1,600 to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit for completion.

How it happened, really, is irrelevant. It was there, all too obvious, unavoidable, glaring, mocking, evoking whatever our psyches were willing to yield to its bald truth. Some saw seering pain in the heat of battle to protect our freedom. Others saw devotion, love, anger extinguished by an instantaneous explosion set by an unknown enemy. Can cremation ever be complete? Maybe. But there it was, the tooth, encased in a sea of concert embedded with crematory ashes, with the fountain’s mountain water dancing, ricocheting from its pearly dental surface, reminding anyone willing to acknowledge its presence of the real cost of war. Thousands had walked by this very spot but had not seen it, or if they had, did not acknowledge it.

A young girl saw almost nothing else. She posted a photo of the dental ghost on Instagram that began the firestorm. Her father had taken her to the memorial, hoping she could learn about the Iraq war, its historical context and the meaning of sacrifice. But she was not ready for any of this. She was, however, fascinated by this embedded tooth. After all, she had lost a tooth just last week. After she took the photo with her iPhone, she felt the gap left behind by her baby tooth with her tongue.

Her Instagram photo attracted millions of views, first from her school friends and family, then from veterans far and wide, and ultimately from those who supported that angry, unemployed youth who planted the IED. The tooth became a lightning rod for the anchored, the dispossessed, heroes, heroines, the stupid.

The tooth, a central incisor, raised many questions. How did it get there, against all odds? Who did it belong to? How did this soldier die in battle? Was it an act of heroism or simply bad luck?

A central incisor intruding from the smooth, clean concrete surface of the war memorial’s fountain was particularly unsettling. After all, such a prominent tooth defines our gleaming smiles, our “grill,” so important that some will pay thousands to have these teeth whitened to display youth, vigor, success, regardless of whether it is an aspiration or a reality. They can send other signals too: happiness, anger, aggression, mastication for function or pleasure, each a message framed by lips, tongue, cheek.

What began with the young girl’s photo of an ill placed tooth led to a national obsession. Inevitably, photoshopped versions appeared on the web of the soldier’s tooth bedazzled, or criss-crossed with braces, one encased in gold like a rapper from the ‘80’s, another digitally extracting the tooth altogether reminiscent of an Ozarks mountaineer; the indent was more disturbing that the dentate. These perversions, of course, came from the stupid, the silly, the bored.

The Instagram photo rocketed through social media, careening off of every platform, landing onto national news media. News casters chuckled that the war memorial “had bite”. Ugh. War memorial visitors began to eschew its grand beauty, with its quietude, its elegant, gleaming surfaces inviting gentle touch, for the Lilliputian media star, the tooth of the Unknown Soldier. This tiny artifact began to draw miracle seekers, like those flocking to the “miracle tree” in New Jersey, in which the Virgin Mary’s image was believed to be nestled within its bark. What miracle did they seek here? A sign from God, smiling down upon them with an incomplete toothy grin?

It didn’t take long before someone thought of paleontologists revealing ancient secrets by gently brushing away sand from fossilized bone. Tourists began bringing along brushes, and yes, toothbrushes, hidden in their pants or coat pockets, slyly thinking that they could reveal what lay behind the errant tooth. What did they think that they would find? Another tooth? The soldier’s dog tag, revealing an unexpected identity? Imagine someone hits the jackpot, and, after thousands of gentle, coaxing brush strokes, escaping the vigilant gaze of the memorial guards, reveals a nearly complete skeleton of the Unknown Soldier. They could be looking at the remains of themselves, an alternative self, if brave enough, if placed in the wrong place at the wrong time, sacrificing their lives for freedom that each of us takes for granted.

Take heed, dear tourist, dear mourner; that macabre, misplaced tooth might attract your dark side, your curiosity, but your gaze, your fixation, is not worth the price of looking into a mirror reflecting a future you need not face and should never know. Step away – now. Appreciate the beauty before you, and thank those who sacrificed, who cannot see what you see now.

Dr. Jeffrey H. Toney serves as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University. He is an educator and a scientist and is a prolific writer for the news media including The Huffington Post and The New York Times. His father, Carl L. Toney, served proudly in World War II in the Merchant Marines and in the US Navy, so he grew up hearing many of his stories of trials and tribulations.

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