In the months following Russia’s unprovoked invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made no lack of attention-grabbing headlines and globally lauded propaganda.
Defiant in the face of a peculiar type of brutality that has now escalated to nuclear threats and the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of woefully unprepared and unequipped Russian reserves, the headman in olive drab has been compared to military chiefs of old.
Zelenskyy, as is his wont, retaliated with a scathing rhetorical onslaught, labeling the Russian reserve mobilization “an endeavor to equip commanders on the ground with a continual stream of cannon fodder.”
In another video published last week, Zelenskyy tried to redirect the influx of mobilization reserves by encouraging them to “get a tattoo with your name and surname so that we know how to identify your families after you are dead.”
Russia’s leaders are sending citizens to the front lines without army [dog tags] and, in many cases, proper identification. It was Zelenskyy who made the remark. “They are doing this on purpose so that they may deceive you about the true death toll in this place. This is one of their secret missions.
While Zelenskyy’s comments will undoubtedly add fuel to Ukraine’s propaganda fire, the suggestion is not unprecedented in the context of military tattoo history and may even evoke memories for a large number of American service members who have visited tattoo parlors with similar, albeit more optimistic, requests.
Those who are preparing for battle typically have a tattoo displaying their identity and, increasingly, their blood type in what has become known as “meat tag” ink.
In the case that a person’s remains are indecipherable and the actual dog tag braided into one’s left boot cannot be located, it is common practice to have a tattoo with one’s identification information in a prominent location, such as high on the ribcage.
During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these tattoos became a rite of passage for many young soldiers assigned to combat units. In the past, meat tags have taken the form of a few lines of writing, a dog tag, or even a chain sticking out of a spread piece of flesh.
Tattooist Jesse Mays previously told the BBC, “Meat tags are so they can make it home no matter what.” I want someone to mourn them. I mean, that’s why we have a tombstone for no one in particular. Problems putting a name to them. The authorities know who my sons are. God has called me to accomplish this.
Tattoos, whether or whether they represent the work of the gods, have been used as a means of personal identity for countless generations. Against the backdrop of contemporary history, the Cold War’s proliferation of nuclear weapons led several cities to explore the widespread tattooing of blood types on men, women, and children in preparation for instantaneous blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack.
According to a 1951 Chicago Daily Tribune story about a campaign to tattoo the roughly 200,000 citizens of Lake County, Indiana, “the [blood type] tattoo is put on the body under a person’s armpit so that it will be both unobtrusive and less likely to be erased in case of damage.”
Some Nazi SS members had a tiny symbol tattooed under their armpits to indicate their blood type a few years before the Cold War’s nuclear frenzy terrified the globe. After World War II, some of these symbols were crucial identifiers used by Allied prosecutors in war crimes trials.
During the nineteenth century, Frederick Roberts, a British army officer, became a vocal advocate for the use of identifying tattoos.
Roberts argued that every officer in the British army should get a tattoo of his regimental crest. “This not only boosts morale among the troops, but it also helps in the identification of wounded,” the authors write.
Some Russian regiments may be lacking in esprit de corps if they have been told to buy tampons for sewing up bullet holes or if their AK-47s are so rusty that they seem like they were salvaged from the sinking Russian cruiser Moskva.
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