Friday, 4 April 2014

Arlington Cemetery

This trip took place after a visit to the Department of Defense's headquarters, the Pentagon. However, it deserves its own entry, because it's quite important and there are a few things I'd like to say about it.

Arlington Cemetery is a place of total calm and tranquility, and it was interrupted only once by a contemptuous pair in a car who harangued members of my group for walking slowly through a cemetery. Were I nobler I'd hope they found the peace they were so desperately seeking, but since I am not a noble man I hope they take to heart the brief lecture I gave them about the cemetery being for quiet reflection and not assholes in cars.

I hope so. Their language suggested probably not.

But the point is that apart from this tiny breach, there was absolute peace. There was, everywhere, the sense of vast, total anti-noise. It's an idea that Pratchett offers in his satirical Discworld books; a bell that tolls silences, a kind of anti-noise that simply swallows sound. That's what this place was. Rows and rows and rows of headstones with trees dotted throughout.

It's not a dead place. Perhaps it's the weather, but cemeteries in Scotland feel dead. They are entirely, absolutely, a place for dead bodies. Perhaps it's the sheer size of it, and the lovely blue skies, and the tweeting of birds. Perhaps if I visited in the dead of winter I'd see it as more dead, but there is just so much space that I can't imagine it. It feels more like the estate of a grand house or an ancient family with an odd taste in landscaping than a place where over 400,000 men and women are buried.

That's because it is, and I highly recommend checking out the informative and well-constructed Arlington Cemetery website. In the meantime, though, we continue on. It's at this point that my pictures will start to become more sparse: my lens, with a near-perfect sense of timing, died. It has worked well for 6 years, but unfortunately all good things must end. Donations for a new lens are gratefully received and can probably be offered in return for writings.

I digress, and I apologise, but actually getting round to talking about this place is really quite difficult. There are a lot of dead people. You can't even fathom that number. 400,000? Suppose you walked by every single grave and spent a minute, just a minute, contemplating the life of the person buried there. And supposing that you didn't eat, or drink, or sleep: you just walked the line and thought. It would take you 278 days. It would take you two thirds of a year.

There are so many, so many, fallen servicemen and servicewomen. And this, the man at the information desk told us with no little pride, is the largest hallowed area in the United States. As one walks around the grounds, and indeed around Washington D.C., it is hard to find monuments to peace. There are monuments to war, and to those who died in them, but peace is hard to find. This is a country that elevates its soldiers to the status of heroes, of martyrs, of demi-gods - but only when they're dead.

We kept moving through, with these markers on every side, in every direction, until we arrived at the marker for the most-loved President. Here, as under the Arc de Triomph marking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there is an eternal flame. On that bright April day, it was almost invisible. Behind it, looking out over acres and acres of graves, were some choice quotes.

We took a picture. It's what you do, when you go places, but for me as I looked along the line and saw the people that I know I will continue to see as they ascend to lofty positions there was another dimension. Standing before the flame that marks the last resting place of President John F. Kennedy, it seemed to be our own little flame. We are not dead. We are fiercely alive. Here is proof that once we were here, and we saw, and we remembered.

The fallen are many, but as we face crisis now in Crimea, as we face once again a Russian power that seems to be intent on expanding, on invading, on possessing; it is good and right and proper to visit the places where we see what happens when the world goes to war.

I said earlier that there are no memorials to peace. This is not that, but perhaps it is a reminder of the price of peace. That price is too high.

One last thought: I said that it would take 400,000 minutes to walk the rows of the dead. Now consider that every day, that walk increases by about half an hour. Let us not rush to make it longer still.