Last weekend I was in Washington for an academic seminar. After it was over, and before my flight back, I went back to Arlington National Cemetery. It is the perfect little side trip if you are in Washington on a busy schedule, because it is only a couple metro stops away from the airport. I also like going there. It always has a strong effect on me.
It was different than the last time I went. The weather was much nicer, and it was a weekend, so it was pretty crowded. The crowds and weather robbed the place of a lot of its character, making it feel more like a park and less like a shrine.
In no particular order, here are some musings and observations, based on my memories and notes that I wrote down:
What does it say about our country and our military that we choose to lay our honored dead in precise geometric precision?
The changing of the guard to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an interesting ritual. I wonder what the history is behind the exaggerated leg swing and the loud heel clicking. Even the regular pacing of the guard feels so mechanical. This seems to be a relic of the old days of the army when keeping formation was the key to winning. Marching-band style maneuvers have been obsolete on the battlefield for over 170 years, but they still linger on in the rituals, training, and traditions of the military. That kind of thing does not just happen in the military; it is fairly common for actions to go from practical to ritualistic as technology changes.
I overheard this just after the guard change:
Little Asian girl: "If he is the guard and he has a gun, does that mean he will shoot anyone who goes to the tomb?"
Her mother: "I don't think so."
The mother seemed disoriented by the question. I understand why. How could you possibly explain this kind of symbolism to a little child? I did not even know if the gun was loaded. When I was there, I thought they were carrying M1 Garand rifles. You cannot tell if those are loaded or not. I just looked it up, however, and learned that the rifles are actually M14's, and that they are not loaded.
If I have to answer a question like that in the future, I will probably say something like "No, he will only shoot you if he thinks you have a gun."
I noticed a lot of jet noise from the airport. It definitely was distracting. I wonder if people complained about the airport being built so close to the cemetery
It was fascinating to look closely at all of the memorials in the display hall. The ones from American civic groups are kind of boring, but the ones from foreign leaders are very interesting:
All of the items in the picture above were presented by the Japanese. Japanese prime ministers and government officials often come to Arlington. I am not sure why. I know that it is traditional for foreign diplomats to visit Arlington to show solidarity with and respect for the USA. However, from what little I know of Japanese culture, it seems like this would be a humiliation. I wonder what it feels like to pay your respects at a place where the pilots who dropped atomic bombs on your country are buried and honored. Politics being what they are, we will probably never get an honest answer to the question of their feelings and motivations.
This is really impressive. More people should make plaques like this.
This is a mere club presented by the prime minister of New Zealand. I know that this is considered a sacred weapon, a symbol of honor and power, but it still feels very odd. How would all of the veterans of the Indian Wars buried at Arlington feel if they knew if a visit to their tombs was memorialized with the weapon of a "savage" like the ones they had been fighting?
There is a big wooden plaque from the 19th century from "The Grand Army of the Republic." I must confess that when I saw this I immediately thought of Star Wars. People do not use names like that any more; they are confined to history and fantasy. I was somewhat relieved when I looked it up and found that this was the Union solder veteran's organization, and not a name used by our actual military or government.
One final note: What is your reaction to this picture?
Give me your gut reaction in the comments.