There is solemnity to Arlington National Cemetery that is unique. It is one of the few places in the Washington area that if you stop and look around, you will only hear soft murmurs of people talking, maybe the rustle of wind through the leaves of the surrounding trees or the rifle volleys and playing of taps that accompany the final act of those that lie there. It is awe-inspiring to look around you and see row after row of white stones inscribed with names of individuals that stood forward to serve in unimaginable ways.
While there is much that has changed about warfare since the first Union soldiers were interred in Mrs. Lee’s gardens, the carnage of battle and long standing pain of families of those lost in it remains steadfast.
I can remember growing up that the only wars that were being fought were either Cold or were limited engagements, such as bombing Khadafy’s tents in Libya or conquering Grenada and Panama. Maybe mine would be the generation that would not have the epic battles such as Midway, the Bulge or D-Day.
Today I can only chalk up those thoughts as being naive and idealistic. Warfare sadly is a part of life for my generation, as it has been for every other one in this country and for that matter around the world. I know it to be a fact for my children. For my youngest, who is now eight years old, there has not been a day in his life that our country has not been in active battle in some far off part of the world.
As sobering a metric as that might be for my little guy, I can’t help but feel how glad I am he is unaware of that fact. He can ride his scooter to the cul de sac, swing in a neighbor’s tree and play with his Star Wars Legos on the front porch with his buddies without knowing a world away, some fatigue-clad man or woman is serving in some forsaken place, away from their families to ensure his life and mine can go forward without interruption. It’s an unequal sacrifice for those men and women and certainly for their families who endure similar burdens of worry of what is happening overseas; and even more pain when someone in uniform comes to pay an unexpected visit to their home to give them some news.
I’ve thought about this often but as I drove past Arlington on my way to work, a well of emotions seemed to spring forth. War is something that we should never feel removed from, but we live our lives in this country so often with a carefree attitude that we forget about what it takes to allow us to live this way.
So often we are attracted to the ridiculous in life and get wrapped up in the fun of it, all too often forgetting the blood, sweat and tears by which this country was founded. It hasn’t been a one-time payment either. Sadly, it’s been a perpetual payment that generation after generation makes to preserve what we have so that it might endure for those yet to come so that they too can live their American dream.
That’s a powerful lesson that should not just be celebrated and shared on Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
The Founders of our country long ago said that we were endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. All of those are paramount to understanding America, but for reasons I can only attribute to the Creator, we are further endowed with having embedded into our national DNA the fact that people of every walk of life and from every corner step forward willingly to raise their right hand, swear an oath and serve in ways known and unknown. No medal or ceremony could ever properly convey the magnitude of that sacrifice or the gifts it has imparted on those who inherit it.
My three children and every other child in this country share in the gifts born of that service and sacrifice. I can think of no other way to look at it. Standing in Arlington, or any other military cemetery, becomes a much more powerful experience when you consider that while soaking in not just the rolling rows of white stones, but the silent solemnity won by those who now lay there. It’s a scene and silence that we should share more often than we do.
These gardens of stone are not just singular monuments to the individuals that rest beneath them. They are reminders of the compact we have to one another for an enduring future. That is reason enough to humbly celebrate alone or with a child.