My parents, in-laws, and friends are at rest there; must I fear visiting them?
As the United States takes on a Trump-orchestrated war-footing in the wake of events in the Middle East, among the early unintended consequences of Trump’s daft and dangerous decision-making and chest thumping are recently-posted restrictions on tourists and visitors to Arlington National Cemetery. To many of us who live near this beautiful sanctuary for our country’s fallen heroes, entrance restrictions are an affront and a shame. At one level, I understand the need to protect the cemetery — it is, to my mind, the most iconic field of honor in the world.
Yes, threats are real
Threats to such national treasures go beyond our borders — in October 2014, a soldier standing guard in front of Canada’s National War Memorial was brutally attacked, shot and killed by an assailant who then ran into the Canadian Parliament building and continued his shooting spree until he was brought down by the sergeant-at-arms. In 2015 and 2016, when ISIS was ascendant, the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra suffered the treacherous indignity of rampant and wanton destruction at the hands of ISIS fanatics. The videos of the dynamiting and tearing down of Palmyra’s walls and columns were heartbreaking. With the removal of ISIS from Palmyra, the world rushed in to begin the long task of rebuilding — or recreating — the glory of that ancient city. The Palmyra lesson, the Canadian War Memorial lesson, and the most recent and painful lessons of synagogue and church shootings, of local grave desecration, of Nazi graffiti sprayed on the homes and businesses of innocent families, do inform us almost daily that there are people in the world who will do horrible things to the places we cherish, the places where we worship, the places where we lay to rest those we love.
Targeting foreign cultural sites is illegal and does not help
So it is prudent to be vigilant when the world’s political temperatures rise to the boiling point, and threats to our allies and to our homeland become more than mere noise. Such threats do carry seriously worrisome weight. That worry increases when a president vows to target not only strategic centers of gravity, but also cultural centers of worship or centuries-old national pride. America has not, and should not go down that road, and to do so only emboldens those who wish to strike us in our cultural and/or religious centers. Trump’s hate-blinded policies, his thirst for ultimate vengeance, only open the door wider for terrorism here at home, and, therefore, I understand why DHS, the Pentagon, and the Military District of Washington, which has jurisdiction over Arlington National Cemetery, would want to do everything possible to protect such a noble, cherished, and sacred place.
But not TSA methods at Arlington. Please.
More than 3 million people visit Arlington National Cemetery every year, walking or rolling in wheelchairs among the tombstones, contemplating the 400,000 graves and columbaria on the cemetery’s 624 acres of verdant hills, valleys, and plains. For those of us who have family members or friends interred or inurned there, Arlington is one of the holy-of-holies in our lives. If we live nearby, as I do, our frequent visits to the cemetery are wistful, sobering, and uplifting occasions. It is where we go to speak to and listen to the dead, to talk to our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and…all too often…our children.
Living in Arlington’s shadow
My wife and I grew up not far from the cemetery; she lived one block from one of the cemetery’s gates, and I lived a few miles beyond. She remembers being strolled there; I remember running across the vast stretches of yet-unbroken ground, not knowing, at 5, what would become of those sweeping fields of grass. She did not know that her mother would be buried there when my wife was only 10 or that her Navy veteran father would lie beside his beloved Bonnie Jeanne just nine years later. They lie together beneath a tree, on a hill not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Remembering the ceremonies
The five-year-old me had no idea, in 1954, that my parents would share a niche in the cemetery’s columbarium almost 50 years later. I did not know then that on the day of my father’s funeral in 2003 a World War I-era caisson with his remains would roll softly along the roads from the chapel to the columbarium. It would be pulled by six elegantly tacked horses and escorted by a platoon of the Third Infantry Regiment, United States Army (the Old Guard). The band would play, seven rifles would crack three times each, a flight of four jets would pass low over the very fields on which I had played as a little boy, and one jet would pull up to the clouds to honor the missing man who was my West Point graduate and Air Force combat veteran dad. Then the bugler would sound Taps, and the flag would be folded — thirteen folds until only the canton of stars was visible — and an Air Force officer would hand it to me as the wind whipped down the stone alleys of the columbarium. As that little boy so long ago, I could not have known all this would happen, but I am grateful to the cemetery’s administration, staff, and the military escorts who, with such grace and devotion, helped me and my family get through it.
Welcoming all visitors
My wife and I, like many family members who live in the Washington, DC, area, have vehicle passes which allow us to drive through Arlington’s main gate just down from Arlington Memorial Bridge. My wife drives up a long curving road and parks below her parents’ grave; I drive across the cemetery to the columbarium, in sight of the Pentagon and the Air Force Memorial. As we enter and drive to our respective parents’ resting places, we see the hundreds of tourists who come to learn more about this amazing, humbling, sacred space reserved for the nation’s very best men and women.
Visitors from every corner of the country and from around the globe make their way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard, or to make a pilgrimage to the Kennedy grave site, or to find the grave of a loved one. School groups and veterans’ groups, children in strollers, old men dressed in memories, widows too young or too old to be left alone, and tear-streaked widowers holding their children’s hands, come to reflect, to learn, and to seek solace.
During my visits to share a few moments with my mother and father, sharing the ages behind a marble plate in the columbarium, my driving route takes me past Section 60, the resting place for men and women who died in our most recent — and ongoing — wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is there, among 14 acres of impeccably white and perfectly aligned headstones, many decorated with flowers or tokens of love and longing, that conversations with the dead are not unusual.
Robert M. Poole, a former executive editor of National Geographic, spent several years listening to visitors to Section 60 for his new book, Section 60: Where War Comes Home. In an excerpt from an interview Mr. Poole had with Simon Worall for National Geographic, Poole describes how those of us have conversations with our departed loved ones at Arlington. At Section 60, notes Poole, conversations with fallen family members are normal and common.
“If you walk around Section 60, you soon learn that the rules of engagement are quite different from what you see everywhere else in the world. There’s the community of the dead under the ground, and the community of the living above ground. And people have no hesitation about carrying on conversations with dead brothers, husbands, fathers, or mothers buried there. It’s like they’re still alive. Why people do this I don’t know. But it’s maybe a way to help them come to terms with the loss of a young person and to continue having some sort of contact with them, no matter how weird it sometimes seems.”
Succumbing to fear
Is it necessary to overlay these visits and conversations with entry rules? Have we become so fearful — as fearful as politicians and the media can make us — that we are willing to turn the cemetery’s Memorial Gate into a TSA-like clearing center? First it is IDs, then screenings…what next? Here is a portion of the new security procedures notice that is posted on Arlington’s website.
“Effective immediately, all visitors 16 years of age and older (pedestrians, drivers and passengers) must present a valid state or government issued photo identification upon entering the cemetery. Visitors include all funeral attendees, tourists, and personnel on official business. School group leaders and tour guides must also present the required identification.
Visitors 16 and 17 years old may present a school issued identification for entry.
We ask for your patience as this will create longer than usual delays. Additionally, cemetery officials are reminding all visitors to add a few extra minutes to their travel times when visiting the cemetery.”
All-in-all, a bad idea
Many of us who live in the Washington, DC, area and who have “vehicular” passes to Arlington will not be as discomfited by the new security measures as will others — young and old who arrive on foot or by subway or tour buses. But even with my convenient access — granted because my parents are inurned at Arlington — I will have to drive through that gate, show my ID, and see lines of people queuing up for inspection and pat-downs, as if they were passengers on the next flight out of Reagan National Airport.
This is not right, not at Arlington, where the men and women who rest there must be remembered for their service and sacrifice that, until now, kept Arlington’s gates open to all who come to learn, to understand, and to respect the legacy of freedom’s defenders.