Monday, May 25, 2009

My World: Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most visited tourist sites in the Washington, D.C. area, with around four million visitors every year. The evidence is all too clear as you stand at the information desk inside the bright, airy building at the entrance to the cemetery. A thousand people seem to be milling around you, buying tickets for guided tours, asking for information, perusing maps, getting oriented before heading out the doors and on to the grounds.

Barely a couple of hundred feet outside the entrance to the visitors' information office lies another world.

Perhaps it is this gentle reminder that sets the tone.

Perhaps it's the 600 acres of land sprawling outward and upward from under your feet. Perhaps it's the winding pathways on gently undulating hills, the lush trees, the grass drenched in a rich shade of green. Perhaps it's this oasis of silence just outside a bustling city.


But at just a few more steps from that signpost the reason - hundreds of thousands of reasons, in fact - for the serenity and the awed hush that envelopes you becomes painfully obvious. Gravestones. On either side of you and ahead of you as far as the eye can see.

The neat rows appear to be in straight lines no matter the angle from which you view them, forming mesmerizing patterns.

If people talk at all, it's in quiet tones and in whispers. On the pedestrian only pathways, if a car drives by, pedestrians move away in respect, because only those who have loved ones buried at this cemetery are allowed to drive in.

Designated in 1864 as a military cemetery, the Arlington National Cemetery was initially used to bury the Civil War dead. Now more than 300,000 people, including soldiers who died in the wars since the Civil War, combat veterans, Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, are buried at the cemetery. The cemetery's website says that an average of 27 funerals take place every day. The funerals these days are for those soldiers who die on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and for World War II veterans.

The cemetery is divided into various numbered sections, each section designated for a particular conflict. In Section 27, for example, are buried former slaves who fought during the Civil War. Their tombstones designate their rank as "civilian" or "citizen". Section 60, pictured above, has been called the "saddest acre in America," and is the designated space for soldiers who die in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the end of the section bookended by two streets, lies another marker. From this end the empty space is foreboding.

In 1868, the military issued an order and set aside the last Monday in the month of May as a day of remembrance and as a day to honor those who serve in the military, now observed as Memorial Day. From the Memorial Day Order:

We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.


Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

As you make your way up and around the winding paths at Arlington National Cemetery, it is not just the miles and miles of gravestones that remind you just exactly what it takes to preserve freedom. It is also the people that are walking all around you - aging parents who've come to say goodbye to their children, young soldiers, some of them barely 19, 20 years old; comrades who've come to remember; young women, with flowers in one hand, the other hand wrapped around a child's tiny palm who've come to say goodbye to their husbands; women, widowed now for years, who've come to plant flowers at their husband's graves; widowers who've come with a stool in tow, just to sit for a while near their wives' graves.

All kinds of people, in all shades of the human rainbow, of myriad nationalities, of all ages and abilities, in all stations in life - rich, poor, middle class. If a walk through the cemetery is a walk through American and world history, it is also a lesson in anthropology.

Families pay homage to a loved one.
There were three generations in that small group you see in the center.

The man came to pay a visit to his wife's gravestone, but searched in vain for that of a friend

Some come by walk, some come by metro, some come in cars, some come on buses, some come on thundering motorbikes.

Memorial Day Weekend in Washington means that the Rolling Thunder comes into town. From Wikipedia:

Starting in 1987 and continuing through May of 2008 Rolling Thunder has been conducting the “Rolling Thunder Run” in which all of its members attend. For 21 years the members of Rolling Thunder have converged on Washington, D.C to show their continued support for the efforts to find lost service men and women of past conflicts. In May of 2001 the estimated number of motorcycles involved in this rally was 200,000; by May 2008 that number had risen to more than 350,000.

It is humbling and thrilling to be anywhere close to where a large group of the vets on bikes have gathered. You only have an inkling of what they might have gone through in combat, but you can't help admiring their determination and perseverance in showing up every year and in large numbers for their fallen and missing comrades.

Two members of the Rolling Thunder arrive at Arlington Cemetery to pay homage

I took this picture last year as the bikers made their way to Constitution Avenue from the Lincoln Memorial

Memorial Day means many things to many people. It means the end of the school year - well, almost; the beginning of summer; the day the swimming pools open in the colder regions of the country; a day for blockbuster sales; a day when the smoke and aroma of barbecues fill backyards across the country. It also means, in cities and towns across the country, and in the capital, Washington, D.C., a day to remember those who fight on our behalf and give their lives so we may live ours in peace.

No matter which nook of the world we live in and no matter which corner of the world we came from, it's a fine day to tip our collective hat to all our soldiers.

P.S. HBO Documentary Films made a movie about Section 60. I couldn't bring myself to see it when it was first shown. For those who are interested, there's information about the movie online on HBO's website.

This is my world this week. For views from other corners of the world, visit My World.

Update: Adding a link to Lola's heartfelt post about the Sant'Anna massacre called 'Tiny Heroes':

I entered the church at my own risk. I had been warned by the sound engineer, my friend Maurizio. He had gone in minutes prior and exited sniffling. He's usually a big smile person, so a sad face on him stood out like a sore thumb. I wanted to go in nonetheless, to say a little prayer for those 560 people that died on a morning not unlike that one.

The entire east-facing wall of the tiny chapel was covered floor to ceiling with small plaques, faded photos, scribbled inscriptions and epitaphs. The age of the oldest victim honored on that wall was 16. The youngest was a 2-week old infant. That wall was the children's memorial section, and the images of those 110 innocent faces staring back at me was gripping my throat like a tight Nazi fist. The majority of the victims of the massacre that took place in Sant'Anna di Stazzema were children and young women. The men were either fighting, dead or hiding in the mountains surrounding the town. The few invalid elders in Sant'Anna died by the same two MG34 machine-guns that swept the church ground that day.

Please do read the entire post. It is available by clicking here.


Sylvia K said...

A beautiful, moving, heartbreaking tribute to the many who have died in wars -- many that could possibly have been avoided if leaders had reached out to offer dialog instead of destruction and if other leaders had been willing to agree and extend a hand. How many lives could/would have been spared? Until that time comes, we will continue to see, to know the heartbreak of war.
Thank you for your beautiful words and photos. They're a sad but beautiful reminder to us all.

Eve said...

I've always wanted to visit Arlington National Cemetery and hope to do so eventually.

This was such a moving post and a perfect way to remember what Memorial Day is really about. Thanks so much for sharing this.

Eleonora Baldwin said...

I am speechless!

Here I was, moved by your heartfelt tribute to the Arlington oasis of peace, a wonderful post about a sadly wonderful place, about the honouring of valour and the elegance of your descriptions... and here I find myself mentioned with a link to my post!

What a touching gesture, what a kind thought. How oddly relevant.

In actual fact, while I was reading your post, I kept thinking how complementary our two posts were today. There you go, Sujatha: that's how in sync we are. We kinda co-blog.

Thank you, dear friend. From the bottom of my heart.


Sniffles and Smiles said...

Sujatha, You have written a magnificent post...and your photos so complement everything you've written!!! This is so well-done, and is so very moving! And to link to Lola, as well? Brilliant, all the way around! Bravo! Happy Memorial Day to you, my friend! ~Janine XO

Rosaria Williams said...

Touching. Thanks for the link to Lola's post too.

sujata sengupta said...

Thanks for sharing the pics and the link Sujatha. I just had bookish knowledge about Memorial day and Arlington National Cemetery..You brought in the life.

Debbie said...

I was there in November and it truly is a wonderful and sobering experience. Great post and photos.

Breckenridge said...

Great post, thank you. I have enjoyed reading and the pictures are touching.

Suldog said...

Thank you for this.

I had the opportunity to visit Arlington when I was much younger, and it was very impressive. I recall most clearly the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier. Very moving.

Kavi said...

Beautiful post. Will we ever have a borderless world with nothing to kill or die for...

I know i am a stupid ideal world chap...but you the leaders of the arms race..certain facets are just incorrigible.

Cheffie-Mom said...

This post is so beautiful and well written, and the photos are amazing. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

i wish i was buried here. i will get more respect than what i get as a person

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. I hope you had a good weekend and a good start to the week.