I wrote the following essay last Memorial Day at Hot Air, under my pen name of “Doctor Zero.” As you may recall, President Obama did not attend the Memorial Day celebration at Arlington that year. I thought he should have gone, and wrote this to explain why. Reader M. Berry asked me to reprint it today, in honor of Veterans Day. I hope you find it a worthy gift to our nations’ veterans, and the families they have left behind, when making the ultimate sacrifice.
When I heard that President Obama would skip the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, my initial reaction was surprise. It seemed like a foolish unforced error, the sort of mistake a wartime President with flagging popularity can hardly afford. If even Maureen Dowd thinks Obama should have been at Arlington, the buzz on Main Street, USA must be brutal.
Obama is not the first president to spend Memorial Day away from Arlington, but in the absence of a compelling reason to be elsewhere, such as George W. Bush’s attendance of the historic Normandy ceremonies in 2002, I think the President belongs at Arlington on Memorial Day. Even George H.W. Bush, who fell into the twilight’s last gleaming as his torpedo bomber and crew died in the sky above him in 1944, should not have delegated the duty to his Vice President.
Arlington is sacred ground, where pearls of courage and sacrifice are laid upon green velvet for Americans, along with all lovers of freedom around the world, to pay their respects, and be repaid with inspiration. It is a page torn from the American history book, surrounding a house built by George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of our first President… and father-in-law to Robert E. Lee. On Memorial Day, Arlington serves as a place of quiet communion with a great company of heroes, whose boots stamped out the path every American leader follows. Even in peacetime, our heritage of inalienable rights and self-evident truth draws the hungry and hateful gaze of tyrants and predators. It’s good for our President to draw their attention to those pearls on green velvet… and remind them it is but a sample of the vast treasure of courage held within these United States.
More than three hundred thousand people rest in the soil of Arlington, but its grounds are not haunted. Its ghosts are found around the world, in all the lonely places where American soldiers must walk. They hold formation with the men who patrol the streets of Iraq. They roam the mountains of Afghanistan, ready to lay a steadying hand upon the shoulders of their grandsons, in the moment before a sniper’s bullet finds its mark. They stand watch on the tense border between North and South Korea, unblinking eyes fixed upon the servants of a madman, hearts burning for the murdered sailors of our South Korean ally. The spirits of Arlington bear witness to the farewells said by every military family, in air and sea ports across the nation, recalling how they shipped out from a thousand different towns and cities… but came home to one graceful resting place in Virginia.
Arlington is America’s home town. We all come from there. Our veterans gave us the tools we used to build everything else. Before the pens of the Founders scratched across the parchment of our Constitution, muskets scratched the air at Lexington, Concord, Trenton, and countless other desperate battlefields. The valor of the soldiers who fought our Civil War gave us one nation, under God, and indivisible. The armed forces of the United States are a wonder unmatched in all of history: a peerless fighting force that does not shed blood for conquest, born from a nation dedicated to peace. The conquerors of previous ages would swoon with envy to have such a force at their command… and reel in confusion to see them delivering food and medicine to the victims of earthquakes and floods around the globe. Even the cleverest of those bloody old monsters would be unable to fathom how the mercy and humanity of our armed forces are precisely the qualities that make them invincible.
Every President should spend Memorial Day at Arlington, because to stand there is to stand in all the plots of home and foreign soil where American troops take their well-earned rest after melting crowns, liberating empires, burning the grisly totems of fascism, and hammering through curtains of iron. An awful lot of nightmares were buried by the people buried around George Washington Parke Custis’ fine old mansion. They have an indispensable gift for the President, when he comes calling on Memorial Day: the gift of humility. It is proper for the Commander-in-Chief to feel small before that sea of white stones, bright and pure as the stars in our flag. Let his head be lowered in the awesome presence of those who created and preserved the office he holds. Knowing he was inducted into that mighty company on the day of his election, let him waste no time seeking a higher honor, for he will never find one.
The President should go to Arlington both to honor the dead, and learn from them.