Arlington Cemetery: the Army's Graveyard Disgrace

News that the Army misplaced remains at Arlington horrified veterans. James Carroll on the cemetery where his parents are buried and its problematic place in the American conscience.

My father and mother are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, at the top of a small knoll to the north of the Tomb of the Unknowns. I love the place, and not only because of them. At Arlington, the tragic beauty of America, and of life on the Earth, is palpable. Some days, the tragedy weighs far more than the beauty. From my parents’ grave, the vista opens across the tidy field of stones and white tablets, a hillside that rolls down toward the Potomac River, with the low skyline of Washington in the distance. Arlington—a green parkland of mourning—stamps perception with an impression of rare order, yet reports come now that the cemetery is woefully mismanaged, leading to hundreds of problematic sites, including mismarked graves, and even the disappearance of some remains of the honored dead. “That all ends today,” Secretary of the Army John McHugh said.

A military force that does not faithfully care for its fallen members is in far worse shape than even its antiwar critics imagine.

But where did it begin? That the order and beauty of Arlington may conceal darker elements of the human condition is suggested by its less-than-hallowed origins as a burial place. Union soldiers were shockingly routed at the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861—the first major North-South engagement of the war. The retreating Union fighters were carrying the corpses of brothers who’d died, and as they crossed through Robert E. Lee’s estate on the Virginia side of the Potomac, they uprooted Mrs. Lee’s prized rose garden and buried the dead right there, in the shadow of Arlington House. Eventually, that rose garden became the mass grave of more than 2,000 unidentified soldiers. And why would the Lee family ever return to that place? By the war’s end, the estate had been officially (if illegally) requisitioned by the U.S. government as a main burial place for Civil War dead. The beautiful cemetery began as an act of revenge against Robert E. Lee.

In fact, the mass death of the U.S. Civil War (its nearly 700,000 dead would be, as a percentage of population, something like 7 million today) traumatized the United States far more than is commonly realized. The contemporary red-blue political divide that paralyzes Washington politics has its roots in the gray-blue war between the states, and marks the very nation as suffering a permanent case of PTSD. Arlington, for all its loveliness, is a symptom of the American disorder—and that was so even before the current mismanagement came to light. The Civil War’s unimagined plunge into absurd mortality required an urgent reinvention of the meaning of death—for soldiers certainly, but also for all Americans. That reinvention consisted mainly in the elevation, in historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s phrase, of the dead to the Dead. In that sanctification, the "Union" of the disparate states was, at last, fully realized—and heroic self-sacrifice became a pillar not only of patriotism, but of national purpose. That is why the Dead must never be treated as if they are only dead.

But such absolute valorizing of those killed in war guarantees that war will continue, whether necessary or not. That is because once military casualties are suffered in battle, however valiantly, the fallen will be taken to have “died in vain” if their country steps back from the killing. That dynamic alone accounts for tens of thousands of American war dead during Vietnam—and for still mounting numbers of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those heroes are not dying for “America,” or for the successive failed rationales its leaders offer, but for their comrades who are already at Arlington.

There is nobility in such love, one soldier for another—the living for the dead. I saw it in my father, the way he carried his command like a chain, linking him forever to those he lost. An army’s duty is to guard such love, respect and honor it, which is done through the proper honoring of remains. That is why the mismanagement of Arlington is repugnant. A military force that does not faithfully care for its fallen members is in far worse shape than even its antiwar critics imagine. But there is a trap in the impulse to enshroud the dead in glory, for the hallowed aura of the sung heroes can take on more importance than actual lives. In that sense, the glory, now like the beauty of the lawns rolling down toward the river, was already a lie.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.