The Church of Arlington National Cemetery

A member of the US Army looks on after placing American flags at graves at Arlington National Cemetery May 26, 2016 in Arlington, Virginia in preparation for Memorial Day. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ll admit it: Arlington National Cemetery is my church.  Actually, I’ll proclaim it.

Oh, sure, I pray to the Christian God, and I fear Him above all others, but most of the time, when I need some inspiration, or a bit of moral instruction—and, yes, even basic life lessons—I visit the patriot-saints amidst that vast garden of stone, all 624 acres, all 400,000 graves of it.

I’ve lived nearby for decades, so I know the Church of Arlington Cemetery well.  I walk across Route 50 here in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, past the Sacred Six (my term of affection for the bronze giants of the Marine Corps War Memorial, aka, the Iwo Jima Memorial), past the Netherlands Carillon (a gift from the grateful Dutch after World War Two; it’s 127 feet of black marble, including 30 tons of musical bells), and then I enter the North Gate along Marshall Drive, and I’m in my cathedral.

I’m never alone, of course.  There are always a few Park Service rangers around and, of course, friends and family bringing flowers and memories, as well as gawkers and tourists and students.  I think of them all as my fellow communicants; they, too, each in their own way, are taking communion at this shrine of the nation.

There’s not a lot of talking at Arlington.  Even chatterboxes find themselves hushed by the endless rows of white headstones, solemn signposts of heroism, sacrifice, and duty.

Yet still, Arlington speaks to me.  It is there, for example, that I learned about both justice and the rule of law.

The history of Arlington Cemetery is interesting.  It was originally the estate of Robert E. Lee, the West Point graduate to whom Abraham Lincoln offered command of the Union forces—but Lee accepted Jefferson Davis’s offer to lead the Confederate forces instead.  Lee made what he thought was an honorable choice; even though he himself opposed secession, he sincerely thought his first loyalty was to Virginia, and not the United States, and so he sided with the Confederacy.  Again, it was an honorable choice—but the wrong choice.  Tragically and disastrously wrong.

So Lee had to be punished—and he was.  A top Union general, Montgomery C. Meigs, had the vengefully clever idea of burying the Union dead there, right by the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, so that the great Confederate general would never want to return.  And that’s exactly what happened: As Arlington Cemetery grew, it was obvious that Lee would never come back.  Instead, he became the president of Washington College—later Washington and Lee University—and died in Lexington, Virginia, in 1870, far from Arlington.

So in my view, justice was done: Never take up arms against your country.  As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Yet at a notch below justice, there’s still the issue of the rule of law: After Robert E. Lee’s death, the Lee family took the federal government to court over the seizure of Arlington, litigating the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1882 that the seizure had been improper.  So the following year, 1883, Congress appropriated $150,000 and bought the property from the Lees.  Now, for sure, the dead were legal residents of Arlington Cemetery.

Yet also from Arlington, I learned about the redemptive power of reconciliation.  After the Civil War, the question arose: Was Arlington going to be truly a national cemetery—as in, the whole nation?  There had always been some Southerners among the dead at Arlington, because, well, they were among the dead—and a lot of men were dying in the Civil War.  But in the decades following the conflict, monuments to Union heroes were sprouting up, even as the Confederates were resolutely ignored.

Then came the Spanish-American War of 1898, and with it, a feeling of national reunion.  In that war, Northerners and Southerners were on the same side; indeed, a few actual Civil War combatants, such as Gen. Joe Wheeler of Alabama, a former CSA man, now a USA man, emerged as heroes.  Wheeler, a brilliant cavalryman, fought at San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt.  And after Wheeler died of natural causes in 1906, he was buried, under an impressive white obelisk, at Arlington.  And so we chose to remember Wheeler’s bravery and martial skill, and, well, we let bygones be bygones.  A few years later, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson unveiled the Confederate Memorial at Arlington, final resting place for some 250 Grays, spread across three green acres.

The fact that the United States could deal generously with the Confederate dead was a good lesson to me, even a century later.  As Lincoln also said, we must bind up the nation’s wounds—and this is how it happens.

At my church, I have also learned the true power of multiculturalism, or, as I prefer to think of it, multi-ethnicity.  You want an ethnic gumbo?  Check out these names: Boden, Giggey, Grant, Kitchler, Kurtz, Onraet, Pemberton, Tawes.

All different, but all united in high purpose—and noble sacrifice.  You see, those eight—Sgt. John F. Boden, S/Sgt. Wilfred J. Giggey, S/Sgt. Jack L. Grant, 2 Lt. William O. Kitchler, Sgt. Harold C. Kurtz, 2 Lt. Marcel F. Onraet, Sgt. James D. Pemberton, and 1/Lt Elton E. Tawes—were flying in a U.S. bomber when it was shot down over Italy on September 22, 1944.  And as they died together, as a band of brothers, so they remain together, forever, in Section 12 at Arlington.

In fact, there are quite a few group burials at Arlington: a few for ships, one for 9/11 victims, and nearly a hundred for airplane fatalities.  It’s all sad, to be sure, but as Aristotle taught us, tragedy is uplifting.  And so, soft civilian that I am, I feel uplifted whenever I pass by, even as I am humbled.

No, Arlington is never far from my mind.  So on Saturday, the first day of the Memorial Day holiday, I was reading Breitbart, and my thoughts were turned, once again, to that great green expanse across the street.  Atop Breitbart was this headline concerning Barack Obama’s recent trip to Hiroshima, Japan, in which the president seemed, once again, to be apologizing for America: “Stephen K. Bannon to Obama: Why Don’t You Go to Pearl Harbor and Apologize to the Dead Still Buried There?”  And I’ll admit: I thought that was a darn good question.

As Bannon put it:

Why doesn’t he go to Saipan or Peleliu or Tarawa or Guadalcanal or the Coral Sea or Midway or Wake? . . . Why don’t they take that presidential plane and fly into Pearl Harbor and have the Prime Minister of Japan, who’s lecturing a President of the United States in front of the world . . . Why don’t you go to Pearl Harbor and sit there and apologize to the dead that are still at the USS Arizona today! They’ve never been brought out. They’re down there right now. Why don’t we get him to come over and apologize?

Continuing, Bannon added that the atomic bomb brought a swift end to a war that otherwise could have dragged on for years—costing untold more loss of life:

I want everybody in this audience today whose grandparents or parents were one of the potential 1 million landing force in Japan—we planned that for three years.  One million men to land in Japan, and they thought the minimum casualties would be 5 million people.

Interestingly, just the other day, I had occasion to think again of Pearl Harbor, because The Washington Post ran a bittersweet article, “Remains of sailor killed at Pearl Harbor finally make their way home.”  The Post’s Michael E. Ruane told the story of Chief Petty Officer Albert Eugene Hayden, who was one of 429 men who died aboard BB-37, USS Oklahoma, a great battlewagon that was torpedoed and capsized on that infamous day, December 7, 1941.  Hayden’s remains could not be identified at the time of his death, and so he was buried in a mass grave in Hawaii, yet by 2015, the forensic technology had improved so much that the authorities gave it another try, and this time, they were successful.  On May 18, 2016, nearly 75 years after his death, Hayden finally came home to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.  He is now resting in peace, next to his father and mother.

So there’s another lesson for me: Always do the right thing, no matter how long it takes.  And use your learning and technical skill for a good purpose, such as reuniting a family.

And yeah, as I think about it, I suppose it would be too much to expect Prime Minister Abe and President Obama to visit CPO Hayden, and so I agree with Bannon: The two leaders should go to Pearl and pay their respects, in person, to the more than 1100 sailors who are entombed under the water in BB-39, the USS Arizona.

So then, after reading that article, my wife and I took a walk to—where else?—Arlington.  It’s a momentous place, always, but it’s made even more momentous on Memorial Day, when all the American flags are set in front of each headstone.  I pray that devoted patriots are still placing flags there a thousand Memorial Days from now.

I never know exactly what I will find at Arlington.  One day, it’s the grave of Joe Lewis, the world-champion boxer.  Another day, it’s the grave of William Jennings Bryan, the presidential candidate, who volunteered for combat duty in 1898.  Another day, it’s the grave of Hap Arnold, the commander of the Army Air Force in World War Two; Arnold was a big deal, although his headstone is the same as any private’s.  As Arnold said, he considered himself just a “regular Joe,” and wanted to be remembered as one.  And so he has a modest marker—even if his achievements were immodest, even immortal.

What I know for sure is that I will always find something important, even profound, at Arlington.  And yesterday, as we were making our way to the Tomb of the Unknowns—the Changing of the Guard ceremony is a kind of Mass for this Protestant—I suddenly felt an urge to look down to the ground.  I thought of that moment in the Book of Genesis, after Cain has slain Abel: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

And indeed, a voice of blood was crying out.  I looked down and saw a plaque, shaded under a leafy green tree, which reads:




Yes, Bataan and Corregidor should be known to all Americans.  And at one time, they were household names, as were their heroes, such as Gen. Jonathan Wainwright.

Perhaps, you’ve seen a photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur signing the Japanese surrender documents aboard BB-63, USS Missouri, in 1945.  But maybe take another look: That tall, gaunt man standing behind MacArthur is Wainwright, who was captured with his men at Corregidor and then, along with his men, was death-marched and endured nearly four years of near-starvation in Japanese camps.  For his courage and fortitude, leading his men both in combat and in captivity, Wainwright was awarded the Medal of Honor.  He died in Texas in 1953, and now he’s buried at Arlington, Section 1.

Maybe I’ll never know for sure exactly what Wainwright thought of the atomic bomb—but I can guess.  Indeed, when I read Rebecca Mansour’s recollection as to how her father’s life was more than likely saved by President Harry Truman’s gutsy decision to drop the bomb, I am reminded of another recollection that I heard first-hand, back in the 1990s, from a World War Two vet.

R. Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law to a US president, father-in-law to a California governor—and himself a former director of the Peace Corps and vice-presidential candidate—was a political liberal, yet also, always, a staunch patriot.  I sat next to him once at a DC dinner, and we got to talking.  More precisely, I got to listening, respectfully.

He was in the U.S. Navy during World War Two, serving aboard a battleship, BB-57, USS South Dakota, and he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered at Guadalcanal.  He then served aboard a submarine, SS-381, USS Sand Lance; His mission was to prowl the home waters of Japan, looking to torpedo enemy cargo ships.

Aboard his sub under the waters of the Western Pacific, Shriver had no idea about the Manhattan Project.  All he knew was that while the Japanese were being defeated, they were far from surrendering, so final victory would come only once Japan itself was occupied.

So, in 1945, Shriver, by now a lieutenant commander, was recalled to Hawaii, where he was given a new mission: He would be leading a team of commandoes into Japan, stealthily coming ashore at night in rubber boats, in advance of the main invasion.  His goal was to avoid detection so that he could set up a radio antenna to help guide the rest of the invasion.  Sarge recalled, “They told us that 90 percent of us would be killed, which we took to mean 100 percent of us.  And that was okay, because we figured that being killed was better than being captured by the Japs.”

So I asked him, “Were you happy when the A-bomb went off?”  And he answered with a McCauley Culkin-esque fist pump and the single word, “YES-S-S-S!”

Shriver, who lived to be 95, passing away in 2011, is not buried at Arlington.  Of course, there are many memorials to submariners there—even if, of course, they aren’t all graves, as some 16,000 lost their lives at sea in World War Two alone.

As old-salt sub-men like to say, their lost brothers are on eternal patrol.  And of course, one could say that about all the heroes at Arlington: They are all still on duty.

And so I spend time with them, and seek to learn from them, always.  If they gave their last full measure of devotion, the least I can do is pay attention.


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