At Arlington, a place for serious reflection

At Arlington, a place for serious reflection

Michelle and I made our way on the blue line of the Metro today over to Arlington National Cemetery, just on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  Visiting Arlington is quite unlike visiting any other location in Washington, D.C.; at least it should be.  Visually, Arlington was everything I expected it to be, with endless possibilities for composition, the beautifully laid-out lines of rows of headstones, giving testament to those who have served our country in the Armed Forces and in various federal offices, from President to Supreme Court Justice.  Psychically, for me, it was also everything I expected; a somber, humbling location, recalling the history of our nation through names, words and phrases describing the contribution of our countrymen throughout history.  I was appalled, however, at how many people visited Arlington and treated it as simply another stop during the visit to D.C.

A prime example of this phenomenon can be illustrated in recounting a conversation between a young boy and his mother, shortly after watching the changing of the guard and laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  Boy: “Mom, why do they snap their shoes like that?”  (During the regular patrolling of the grounds in front of the Tomb, the U.S. Army guard on duty will snap his shoes together after completing an about-face or when making any turns.)  Mom: “It’s just pomp-and-circumstances.  They just need a reason for a ceremony.”  I had to keep myself in check, as I am not sure I could have been diplomatic with my response.  “The snap,” I should have told her, “is meant to emphasize the precision of the movement.”  As for needing a “reason” for a ceremony, I could have said, “These guards are honoring a person who, although we don’t know his name, died serving his country.”

I am not one to get jingoistic or nationalistic.  But, I am a veteran and have tremendous respect for all who have served, whether in the Armed Forces or in some higher office.  They have all done something that so few Americans have; they have sacrificed a term of years, or even their lives, to ensure that the greater good that is our United States continues to move forward, continues to fulfill the ideals set forth by a group of men in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century.

When visiting the grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to pay respects and see the eternal flame, I had to wait for a while to get a view, as a dozen or so teenagers were crowding the front, taking snapshots with their iPhones and turning to each other to chat about all matter of things … other than JFK and his legacy.  I wondered to myself, then shared with Michelle, whether these kids had any appreciation for whose grave they visited given the current state of public education in the U.S.  What did they learn about JFK?  Was it just that he was assassinated, and that his brother, interned about a hundred feet away and marked by a lone cross on the hillside, was assassinated a couple of years later?  Did they have any understanding about the change that these men represented and how forces gathered to make sure that their change never occurred?  Did these kids have the capacity to consider what our country could have been had John and Robert Kennedy lived to die of old age?  Unfortunately, I am sure they did not.

As I stood at the Tomb of the Unknowns, simply watching the member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, or “Old Guard,” stand guard over the tomb, I pondered and reflected on who was interned inside, what sort of life he lived, who he was, how he died.  Unfortunately, many of the other dozens of people standing nearby watching and waiting for the change of the guard were not so reflective.  Despite the many signs requesting quiet and respect, these visitors were being neither.  I gave a little “hoorah” inside when the soldier came out of his guard shack, did a sharp right face, snapped his boots, and rather forcefully but diplomatically reminded people to be quiet and have respect.  With message delivered, he returned sharply to his station.  That soldier gets it; of course he does, there is a reason he is serving in the most revered post available to any member of the U.S. Army.  And I think it is fair to say that anyone who has ever served in uniform gets it.  Perhaps that is another reason why the United States should have compulsory service like so many of its allies; at least its citizens would then understand better the meaning of sacrifice.

Moment after moment, so many people who were at Arlington today were simply there to catch the highlights.  Crowds flocked at the Kennedy family plot and the Tomb of the Unknowns, but no one stopped to visit the grave of Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who authored so many of the decisions that make up the foundation of criminal procedure rooted in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.  Or how about the many chaplains who ministered to the fighting, the dying, the serving; men and women far from their home churches who needed to be comforted by a man of God in some rather trying times.  From presidents to senators to associate justices or even private first classes, so many men and women in so many ways had so many stories, represented so much history, and yet remained so lost and unheard of to the many crowds who flocked to Arlington today.

I suppose I should not be surprised.  When visiting national parks in general, tourists tend to stay to the road system and only stop at the pullouts because anything else just takes too much time and effort.  National parks are merely destinations, places to see with things to do.  Most people do not take advantage of the chances for reflection and exploration that await them.  Arlington is no different.  For most people today, it was a place to see a military ceremony – like the 3rd Infantry changing of the guard of laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns – or visiting the burial sites of famous historical figures.  But, what it really offers is a chance to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, on the meaning of service, of the lasting impact that every person can have on the lives of others and on the shape and direction of a nation.

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