History classes in high school, and even in college, often, to me, were tedious exercises taught by some who just didn’t manage to bring the subject alive. It’s ironic, then, that I would be so engaged in the topic at a place for the dead: Arlington National Cemetery. Walking somewhat randomly, but generally following groups of tourists, I crossed eras of American history. Sacrifice and fairness were themes of the day.
The Kennedy era was first up. The ’60s seem so dark, marked by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But the promise of civil rights for the oppressed made me wonder how much of a meritocracy we actually are. Seeing the grave of Sen. Edward Kennedy, I wondered about his military service and the qualifications to be admitted to Arlington National Cemetery. Does one need connections to get in? Who determines placement and headstone size?
Ted turns out to have done some military time (albeit, allegedly, in Paris), but his dedicated area at Arlington—about which I was informed by a tour guide that his estate pays to maintain—was just one of some interesting incongruities about American history evidenced at the site. Rules of admission do exist, though how one gets a big space or a prominent placement is a bit obscure to me.
Continuing up to the Custis-Lee mansion, with its impressive views of the Potomac and the Lincoln Memorial, I was heartened to hear the role of slave labor acknowledged at the site. Slaves built the house and maintained the property. What I hadn’t known before setting foot in the space was that Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was the great-grandson-in-law to the first president himself, George Washington. How ironic that a few generations after Washington had fought to establish the nation a relative sought to end it.
The role of terrorism—and historical mysteries—surfaced next on our walk. The monument to those who died in Pan Am Flight 103 was an interesting choice; to me, the placement of the stones from Scotland, where an on-board bomb exploded and the plane crashed in 1988, resembled a smokestack more than an homage to the innocent lives lost. The piece triggered a conversation: Why did Libya bomb the plane? No one knows. There was a bit of a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, aggression meets aggression stance between Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and then-President Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s. The humanitarian release of one Libyan accused and convicted of involvement in the attack was an interesting moment in jurisprudence; the eventual collapse of the Libyan government and the killing of Qaddafi during the Arab Spring may well mean that the rationale for the bombing, and the full list of people involved in it, will never surface.
From there, we found the mast of the Maine, which launched a discussion of the sinking of that ship’s historical importance. The ship exploded in Havana harbor in 1898 at a time when Cubans were seeking freedom from their Spanish rulers. Some considered the Spanish to be at fault, although the actual cause remains murky. Nevertheless, the incident was a contributor to the launch of the Spanish-American War and serves as a reminder that the United States apparently has gone to battle more than once after relying on faulty intelligence.
I was a little uncomfortable with the size of the Confederate Memorial, just as I am uncomfortable with the Confederacy’s cause. I wonder how often the losing side is appeased with statuary.
More moving were the sheer numbers of small, individual markers identifying people who had been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. More than 400,000 people are buried there. Those who seem to have fought the hardest might be more deserving of prominent placement than some of the politicians found interred at the site.
Our last stop was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where veterans of World War II, now quite elderly, were visiting for Armed Forces Day. Seeing these grandfatherly men, all in wheelchairs, each wearing a cap labeling him a veteran, reminded me again of how much we have to appreciate—thanks to the sacrifices of them and of their generation, and of those buried at Arlington and elsewhere.