A dozen years ago, I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first (and only) time. As a reluctant participant in the Vietnam War, I was hoping that my visit to this “hallowed ground” would offer up some kind of comfort, some sort of pride, for having served my country during wartime. It provided neither comfort nor pride for me.
I was puzzled by my response. The place is 639 acres of beautifully landscaped graves and monuments. It’s situated right on the banks of the Potomac River and offers a majestic view of Washington, D.C. My initial reaction was of awe and a feeling of connection with the names and dates etched on tombstones and mausoleums. But as I explored the cemetery, there were signs strategically placed on pathways admonishing me to keep silent and to be respectful of the dead. At first, I read these signs as a nice way to respect the men and women buried underfoot. Then they annoyed me because of their commanding tone, and finally, they angered me because I felt as if I were back in the service, and some belligerent officer was once again barking out at me how to think and how to behave.
This anger made me feel uncomfortable at Arlington. I thought it was my displaced feelings of resentment at having had to put on a uniform even though I found out after my tour of duty that because of my father’s death when I was nine, I needn’t have gone into the military Being the only surviving male in a household with my mother and three sisters would have exempted me from service as I was my mother’s only source of support. But boys from the Bronx didn’t get any kind of anti-war counseling that would illuminate such information— college students and college-bound students had middle-class counselors available to them, not the urban poor. So as I trudged through acre after acre of funereal splendor, I thought my growing repulsion to Arlington was simply a matter of personal “sour grapes,” independent of the visual and historical landscape where I had deposited myself.
I was wrong. It suddenly dawned on me that the signs admonishing me to behave in a certain way weren’t so much to insure proper respect for the dead, but a kind of recruitment poster for potential future servicemen. In my mind the phrase eternal rest suddenly turned into parade rest, the military term for being at ease while still in a military formation. I felt that every corpse interred at Arlington was there to seduce living boys to join up and experience the wonders of heroic service to one’s country. When I discovered that Arlington National Cemetery was open 365 days a year, from sunrise to sunset, it disturbed me. It seemed as if the dead never had a time to be dead, that they were continually on display, continually in formation to perpetuate a recruiter’s dream of power and glory.
Heroic service is the key. Hero. The mythological hero envisioned and praised in ancient literature, where immortality wasn’t considered to be taking up residence in an afterlife, but having the deeds of the hero repeated and praised by living generation after generation.
It’s not a coincidence that an internationally renowned military cemetery, barely a hundred years old, and the national depository of the military dead for a nation not much more than two hundred years old, is architecturally rooted in the ancient past of Greece and Rome where this heroic ideal flourished. It’s not America one enters when you pass the gates of Arlington, it’s the ancient world of the Theseum in Athens that the cemetery’s Greek Revival centerpiece, Arlington House (once the Custis-Lee mansion) imitates . It’s that of the white marbled, roofless, memorial amphitheater. “Copied after both the theater of Dionysus at Athens and the Roman theater at Orange, France,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the proportions and distances convey the charm of an old Greek ruin.”
But this unique American historical monument has become, in addition, a huge recruitment center rooted in the glorious mysteries of ancient legends of death and sacrifice. My feeling that one of the subtler purposes of Arlington National Cemetery is in military recruitment was greatly strengthened when I discovered that the United States government maintains 114 national cemeteries, but Arlington is one of only two under the jurisdiction of the United States Army. The remaining national cemeteries are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Why is Arlington one of only two military cemeteries in the nation administered by an active branch of the military? Does the United States Army, which employs more than ten thousand recruiters that work vertically, see these Arlington dead as important and powerful horizontal recruiters?
In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the role of ceremonies such as burial.
“[They] serve to translate the individual’s life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal forms. They disclose him to himself, not as this personality or that, but as the warrior… . Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains. By an enlargement of vision to embrace this super-individual, each discovers himself enhanced, enriched, supported and magnified.”
Campbell is describing the role of burial in the life of ancient, tribal warriors, but is there an Army recruiter in late 20th century America that wouldn’t kill to be able to induce an experience of that magnitude on a daily basis? Arlington National Cemetery does evoke that type of experience every day of the year, from sunrise to sunset. The overwhelming majority of the 230,000 corpses interred there are not heroes, but “ordinary” citizens like the visitors viewing them. But planted within this classically structured cemetery, these acres of ordinary individuals become inspiring “super-individuals” perpetuating the validation of this festival of the dead.
Justice Joseph Story stated in an address at a cemetery dedication in 1831, that contemporary Christian attitudes and practices concerning burial were, unfortunately, not the equal of those of earlier “heathen” cultures, and to prove his point he briefly surveyed the burial customs of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, and others. “Our cemeteries, rightly selected, and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of human duty. They may preach lessons, to which none may refuse to listen, and which all that live must hear.”
Participating in this recruitment poetry of the tombs is the most visited site at Arlington, John F. Kennedy’s grave. Inscribed on the wall nearby is this quote from his inaugural address: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” The irony of such a quote coming from Kennedy is that during World War II, as a naval officer, Lt. John Kennedy was the only P.T. boat commander to lose a boat by enemy ramming in the entire Pacific theater. Through the intervention of his powerful father, Joseph Kennedy, Lt. Kennedy was able to turn his impending court martial for gross neglect of duty into an act of inspirational heroism that propelled him into Congress and eventually into the role of the nation’s Commander-in-Chief. John Kennedy now concludes his public career as Arlington’s number one military recruiter.
As I delved deeper into the history of Arlington National Cemetery, I was surprised to find that the issue of racial identity is also alive on this hallowed ground. From 1864 until 1890, it served as the site of an encampment for the formerly enslaved, known as Freedman’s Village. Freedman’s Village resulted from Lincoln’s emancipation of all enslaved people living in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862. Given Washington’s proximity to the southern states, many escapees from slavery—as well as those liberated by advancing Union troops—found their way to Washington in search of a new life. Overcrowding and disease forced the government to relocate many different camps (including one inside the U.S. Capitol Building) to Arlington as a temporary refuge, but the camp grew to be known as Freedman’s Village, providing permanent housing and other community services to liberated Black men, women, and children for nearly thirty years.
At its inception, the village came under the military jurisdiction of the U.S. Army and was governed by a military commander. Many residents complained that life under military rule was not much better than slavery.
After the war, the desire to assist those who had been enslaved lost a great deal of its support among the general public, and fewer and fewer resources were made available to the villagers. Neighboring residents complained of the crime associated with the village and of the financial burden they were forced to assume as federal assistance to the villagers was reduced. By 1890, the villagers were no longer considered refugees from slavery, and Freedman’s Village was dismantled and the residents were forced to leave.
Thus, more than three generations before Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, a harsh welfare “state” was founded at Arlington National Cemetery. The negative result from this noble experiment proved to be a microcosm of contemporary racial strife. I’m at a loss to explain why this earliest of governmental precedents concerning the race question wasn’t factored into 20th century policy decisions. I imagine that some invaluable insights could be gained by studying how a Freedman’s Village, in the course of a single generation, could evolve into what many believe acted as a Freedman’s Prison. I suspect that the truth of this failure has been discreetly buried under humanely inscribed Arlington Cemetery monuments, ones that applaud the government’s benevolent establishment of Freedman’s Village to help the down-trodden African-American victims of the Civil War.
Discreet burials of another kind were performed at Arlington. There existed a policy of segregating Black warriors from white that lasted for nine decades. The expulsion of living Black residents from cemetery grounds in 1890 was replaced with the expulsion of deceased Black residents by depositing their corpses in a separate area, away from their white counterparts. Segregated even in death, Black soldiers were denied the same hero status given to whites. This “Freedman Village of the Dead” existed until 1948. It’s only been seventy years since our Black servicemen and women have been afforded the privilege of serving our nation as horizontal recruiters.
Arlington National Cemetery is a kind of theme-park whose theme is our national, and to a lesser extent, racial identity. Disney World may be the theme-park brainchild of Walt Disney, but Arlington is one of only two national cemeteries out of 114 that is under the direct control of the United States Army, and it’s not even the largest national cemetery. It’s the theme-park brainchild of the Pentagon that serves a future much more adroitly than the past it claims to represent.
Mark Blickley is a New York based, widely published and produced, author of fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, and experimental video, and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. His multi-genre collaborations with artist Amy Bassin include Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground (Moira Books) and the text-based art collaboration Dream Streams (Clare Songbirds Publishing House). His videos, “Speaking in Bootongue” and “Widow’s Peek: The Kiss of Death,” represented the United States in the 2020 year-long international world tour of Time Is Love: Universal Feelings: Myths & Conjunctions, organized by esteemed Togolese-French curator, Kisito Assangni.