Memorial Day at Arlington: A mood of hushed reunion and observance

A backwards glance at the hundreds and thousands of lives lost in military service to conflicts dating back to the civil war

Memorial Day in downtown Washington has an eerie feel: the normally bustling Connecticut Avenue, which bisects the city on its route past the White House, has a sleepy Sunday vibe but something is off: too many low-flying aircraft in the sky, too many siren bursts and the tail-end of the tornadoes ripping through the central states is in the swirling breeze.

Down at the Vietnam Wall, a black granite curved memorial bearing the names of 58,000 US military people killed in that war, the crowd is gathering for a lunchtime service. The mood is of hushed reunion and observance. It’s just one of countless acts of parades and pageantry taking place across the country.

“I was here in 1982 when it opened,” says Gary Galloway, a 75-year-old veteran from Hardinsburg, Kentucky, who served in Vietnam in 1969-1970.

“I have been here for the last 15 years every Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I’ve four guys on the wall there. And I know a lot of others on the wall. I had eight months in Vietnam. I got messed up over there. I was 21. I was one of the older guys.”

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It could be described as the US’s strangest day: the official beginning of summer, with attendant larks and beach plans, but it is also a sombre and solemn backwards glance at the hundreds and thousands of lives lost in military service to conflicts dating back to the civil war from 1861 to 1865 that shattered the idea of the United States.

On a Sunday of searing heat, a steady crowd had lined in the tree-shaded approach to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, which sits on a crest in Arlington Cemetery. It’s the only day of the year when the public are permitted to walk across the plaza where the crypts hold bodies of unidentified soldiers disinterred from distant graves and transferred to the memorial, each representing unknown soldiers from the first and second World Wars, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In 1998 the Unknown American from the Vietnam era was exhumed from the tomb and, using newly available science, was identified as a first lieutenant in the US air force named Michael J Blassie: he was then laid to rest in Missouri in accordance with his family’s wishes. But Arlington has more than 4,000 headstones marked “Unknown”.

When the former estate and home to Robert E Lee, who resigned from the US army and became the commander of the Confederate army and the shimmering figure of the South’s Lost Cause mythology, was repurposed as a burial ground, the original graves were marked with white wooden clapboards. Early visitors described how, when walking up to Arlington, the entire scene looked like fields of white flowers.

In time, marble replaced the boards, but the effect remains the same. A monument in what was the rose garden of Arlington House marks the location where the remains of 2,111 soldiers gathered after the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas. Arlington House itself is open to the public and the only change to the interior, preserved since the day Lee hurriedly departed, are electric fans rotating to cool the stream of visitors filing through and taking photographs of the actual red velvet furniture set bought by Lee, of the table where the family set still laid.

More than 400,000 people are buried at Arlington in 70 sections which are oddly haphazard in layout. Section 13 is where the white civil war dead are buried. Section 27 was reserved for African-American union soldiers. A short walk away is section 60, where most of those buried were born in the 1990s. Of course, not all died in combat. A family relative, my mother’s uncle, Martin Sweeney, who left Connemara as a young man, joined the US army and served in the second World War and Korea, was buried in section 67 in the winter of 1984. As military lives go, his was blessed: he lived until old age.

It’s a disorientating place, Arlington, with its prevailing peacefulness (birdsong like the Masters golf tournament) and dignity and the heavy mystique of the big house on the hill framed by the overwhelming, inescapable deluge of violence and death beneath it all. The civil war has become the framework around which the US’s narrative is told. The World Wars are revered as the good wars. But the more recent conflicts in Vietnam and the Gulf and the mismanaged invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan generate complex and conflicting emotions.

“How do you memorialise the dead of a failed war?” asked Phil Klay, the novelist who served in the marine corps in Iraq in a New York Times essay this week.

“At Arlington, it’s easy to let your heart swell with pride as you pass certain graves. Here are the heroes who ended slavery. Here are the patriots who defeated fascism. We think of them as inextricably bound up with the cause they gave their life to. The same can’t be said for more morally troubling wars, from the Philippines to Vietnam. And for the dead of my generation’s wars, for the dead I knew, the reasons they died sit awkwardly alongside the honour I owe them.”

The names on the Vietnam Wall are limited to those who either died in the conflict or, within 120 days, of injuries or illnesses inflicted by time in the combat zone. That limited window has caused its own controversies, raised its own questions about the unnumbered who suffered health problems in later life. One of the most disquieting statistics about the aftershocks of the US military life concerns later-life suicide: in 2020, more than 6,100 veterans took their own lives – and that figure marked a decrease on preceding years. Many others continue to suffer the after-effects of Agent Orange, including Gary Galloway, who has been diagnosed with cancer. His way of dealing with it is to keep going: he’s an avid motor biker and tries to walk 8km each day.

“I don’t have PTSD. I think the reason I don’t is that I stay active. I knew a guy from home who was in the second World War, at Iowa Jima. A marine. He was 90 years old. He had a Mustang convertible. He travelled all over the country. I said: ‘Why do you do that?’ He said: ‘If I slow down, the shellshock is going to hit me.’”

At Arlington on Monday morning, president Joe Biden invoked the name of William Christman, a Pennsylvanian who became the first soldier buried there in June of 1864, seven weeks after enlisting. He was not alone for long.

Like many presidents before him, Biden’s address was cloaked in the language of military myth. His sentiments were genuine but sit uneasily in a year when the US government is sponsoring Israel’s ongoing slaughter in Palestine.

“One thing I see that’s changed here: all school kids who came here, they would hand you letters and greet you,” Gary Galloway says as a light rain begins to spit and the umbrellas are raised before the ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

“I’m not seeing that so much any more. Just every once in a while some young kid will say thank you for your service. But that’s it. I don’t have any idea why that is. Everything has changed.”

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