I’ve written elsewhere about the history of military tattoos and even the memorial tattoo and, although this month’s tattoo symbol is both of those, its rising popularity sets it apart from other more general tattoo symbols. Sometimes referred to as the fallen soldier’s cross or the battlefield cross, it is an American tattoo symbol that has transcended its original intent.
Although the names given to this assemblage of personal gear use the word cross, a true cruciform shape is only vaguely suggested. An anthropomorphic figure, however, the shape of a human, is most definitely part of the symbolism. Although the origins of this battlefield tribute are not known, the act of creating war memorials is as ancient as warfare itself, easily stretching back to Greek cenotaphs and Egyptian obelisks. Often, war memorials in the ancient world were meant to commemorate a great victory, often far from the place of the battle–a way for kings, pharaohs, and emperors to demonstrate to their subjects and posterity that they have ruled well. Rulers were lauded, enemies dehumanized, and the identity and participation of individual soldiers was largely ignored. The advent of the battlefield cross confounded all of these aims.
The battlefield cross takes its name from the fact that this makeshift monument is traditionally erected at the spot where a soldier has been killed in battle, not in some remote location. Likewise, instead of honoring rulers or nations, an individual soldier is recognized. While the explicit treatment of the enemy is not addressed, it’s interesting to note how personal and human this type of monument is by its nature: the soldier’s weapon (rifle with bayonet) standing in for the body, the helmet worn on the head, the boots on the feet, and sometimes the dog tags around the neck.
It is ironic that such a unique and individual symbol has now become so popular–or at least prevalent–that it is has come to represent a wider and more encompassing symbol of all battle casualties and war dead. No longer relegated to the battlefield, this fallen soldier emblem has made its way into remote memorials far from the scene of the battle–sometimes using a weapon, helmet, and boots, sometimes a statue–at American memorial services the world over. It has become a military symbol that captures the sentiment of esprit de corps as well as the loss of a comrade. It has become a tattoo symbol that often stands for a lost combat buddy but can equally stand for the last measure of sacrifice that is potentially a part of all wartime military service. From something originally created as temporary tribute, to something indelibly inked in the skin, this military tattoo symbol is showing signs of enduring for some time.