Reflections on Arlington

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first time. This seems odd as a military ethicist and one who is in the area about once a year, especially since the friend I usually bunk with lives a stone’s throw away. (In my defense, my trips have often been in January or mid March when the weather is rather…festive.)

For multiple reasons, it was a profoundly moving and intellectually fascinating experience, but I want to focus on the imagery and aesthetics of memorials.  In this trip (and if others prior) I paid my usual visit to the Vietnam Memorial which I have always found fascinating and disturbing – I always have the sensation of drowning as I walk and the wall ‘rises’ in effect.  This effect is also amplified because one sees the names inscribed, tokens left and of course, one’s own reflection.

Arlington, being a cemetery, is quite different.  Perfectly symmetrical (especially in the more contemporary sections) rows of white washed stone with names, military and religious identifiers and in some cases, reflections on the virtues of the deceased. For some reason, (and this was true at Gettysburg too), I find the white and the symmetry disturbing. Perhaps it is the attempt to sanitize for the purposes of memory and posterity, the blood, sweat, carnage, pain and suffering that lead to each stone there. Is it an attempt to bring order and meaning (at least in a visual sense) to that which is often chaotic and for some meaning-challenged?

This raises a larger question of what narrative our memorials to war convey. As a philosopher, I am interested in what wars/conflicts and aspects of wars we chose to memorialize and how we do it.  This process of selection and memorialization is often fraught with controversy – as the example of the Vietnam Memorial attests. What exactly are we remembering?  Is it the dead? Is it the honor and virtue of their sacrifice in defense of the nation? Is it the virtue or value of the specific cause for which they fought? Is it the virtue of the way in which they fought?

To tack to a non-military example, today is my son’s birthday.  What do I remember about the day he was born and the immediate days following? (My son is adopted and I was not there for his birth, but arrived the next day.)   Well, in general, what I remember is quite selective and tends to fit a narrative of uncertainty and difficulty that is quite different from the way I remember the birth of my first son (whose birth I was in the room for.)   There is no way to separate the memories of the day from what came before and what came in the weeks after; there is also no doubt that there are memories that are absent for me of that day.

At Arlington, what are the memories that are preserved?  What is the narrative that they support? What is missing?  Who is missing? What is the story that Arlington tells? I wonder especially what story it tells to those who do not have military background and connections.  What do they make of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of its guard? What do they make of Lee’s house and that it is preserved as a memorial on a hill overlooking the city?

The narrative that I felt most strongly was the warning about the cost of war and that each stone represented a life, a family and a narrative that was forever changed because we made the decision to go to war.  I rather suspect that narrative is shaped by my family history, military connections and academic study of war and the moral limits on conduct of war. There were moments of anger, sadness, calm, fatigue and even bemusement (at a road sign bearing Patton’s name, which I took a picture of for my father who adores him.)  These will all shape the memory of this trip to this place, but there are things missing as well. There are things I might not remember or would remember quite differently if I were someone else.  For everything we remember, there are choices, selections and narratives.  A memory is only a piece of the picture. One part.  What remains? Where is the rest?

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