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Review of Micki McElya's "The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington Cemetery"

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tags: book review, Micki McElya, The Politics of Mourning



 Murray Polner is HNN's senior book review editor.

Most nations maintain cemeteries for their war dead. I've visited them in France, Russia, Israel, Japan and the U.S. In the river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi's immaculately kept memorial park contains the remains of boys and young men killed in the Civil War.  All these burial sites are rightly deemed to be hallowed grounds. But here, Arlington National Cemetery is our most "sacred shrine." In "The Politics of Mourning" Micki McElya, Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, relates Arlington's history, the good and the not so good, and does so brilliantly, gracefully and unsentimentally.

Arlington National Cemetery opened in 1864 on the estate Mary Anna Curtis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It had also housed the slave-built Freedmen's Village, a settlement of freed slaves who were paid $75,000 in 1900 after the last remaining former slaves residents departed.

The first to be buried was a 21 year old Union private who had not experienced combat and died in May 1864 in a local hospital. Since then the dead of all our many wars, beginning with the Revolutionary War, have been buried there as well as notable civilians. On Decoration Day, May 1868, James A. Garfield, a Union Civil War general and eventual U.S. president, appeared at a Grand Army of the Republic-sponsored ceremony where the graves were decorated with flowers and wreaths. Setting the tone and solemn nature of the event, Garfield reverently intoned, "This soil beneath our feet washed by the tears of slaves and was now sacred."

The interred now include Medal of Honor recipients,  Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, astronauts killed in the 1967 crash of Apollo 1, Audie Murphy, Lee Marvin, both veterans and actors, Justice Hugo Black, Medgar Evers, Alexander Haig, Robert McNamara, the agnostic Robert Ingersoll, JFK, RFK and Ted and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joe Louis, General George C. Marshall, WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin, Pat Moynihan and many others including Robert Thompson, an American  Communist leader and combat veteran, and a cenotaph for band leader Major Glen Miller who died in a air crash over the English Channel. In 2011 an area was dedicated to fourteen Jewish chaplains who were killed while on active military duty in WWII, the Cold War and Vietnam.

"The vast majority of those who journey to the ceremony do not go to mourn a friend or family member but to express patriotism's more tangible connections," writes McElya....Millions go there every year because they want to be in the presence of heroes."



Draftees from the two world wars and Vietnam are disproportionately represented, where their many bodies worsened the cemetery's space problems. McElya writes that by the end of 1973 about 3,403,000 military had served in the Vietnam War. Large percentages were draftees, though we know comparatively few children and grandchildren of pro-war politicians and VIPS served."43 percent" of the dead in 1970 were conscripts, she tells us, which to me is why those eager to fight wars need a draft.

Initially, Arlington was only for white men. Before too long, the Confederate dead and Robert E. Lee were honored with a memorial, which McElya points out appeared to contemporary critics as "a stark reminder of how far the cause of black freedom had been pushed from official memories of the war."

Remains were repatriated from the Spanish-American War and our invasion of the Philippines, soldiers and sailors killed in "American wars for empire" or as the war-loving imperialist Theodore Roosevelt, still admired by many Americans,  proudly put it, "the triumph of civilization" over "the black chaos of savagery and barbarism."

Not until 1948 when Harry Truman desegregated the military were African Americans allowed in. Medgar Evers had been drafted in 1943 and served in a segregated unit and was awarded two bronze stars for serving in the invasion of Normandy and northern France. Back home in Mississippi he joined the NAACP and the progressive American Veterans Committee. After his murder by a KKK assassin he was interred with full military honors but his burial, writes McElya, was "eulogized more pointedly as a fallen soldier in the civil rights movement."

It wasn't as easy for two fallen Nisei soldiers, Fumitake Nagato and Saburo Tanamachi from the storied and segregated 442nd Japanese American Regimental Combat Team. They were buried in Arlington in 1948 to much acclaim, though few press accounts mentioned the infamous 1942 Executive 0rder placing west coast Japanese, including their families, in internment camps. Their joint burials were "markedly different from the segregated burials of Arlington's recent past, from the separate and subservient places for nonwhite people," McElya comments. Finally, the nation's most sacred ground was finally "recast as a terrain of inclusion and meritocracy, distinct from other parts of the country, while exhibiting its true national values" and was indeed "a model for the rest of the country on honor, citizenship, and the management of race."

As a result, in 1949 and again 1951, a Mexican American rifleman, Felix Longoria, killed in 1945 in the Philippines and the Native American Sgt. John R. Rice, killed in the Korean War, were finally buried in Arlington, after their hometown cemeteries, whites-only, had denied them burials. Truman was so incensed that he sent the local mayor and the cemetery a telegram expressing his outrage.

Robert Thompson was quite another case. He was a leader of the Communist Party, veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and a draftee in the U.S. Army where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism" in combat. After he and other Communist leaders were later tried and convicted for violating the notorious Smith Act, he was sentenced to prison, fled, was captured, and then served four years and five months in prison. In 1957, still a party member, the fifty year old Thompson died of a heart attack. When his wife Sylvia applied to have him buried in Arlington, McCarthyite politicians and a media out for red blood, protested any suggestion that a Communist could be laid to rest in Arlington. His brave wife fought back."Barring the ashes of my husband, a war hero, from Arlington Cemetery, is an incredibly immoral and illegal act," she said, adding, "the Pentagon has yielded to political ghouls. Are they now saying that Arlington is only for political conformists?" Three years after his originally scheduled funeral the Supreme Court ruled that Thompson's ashes could be interred in Arlington. Somehow the Republic survived.

The Vietnam War predictably created many unanticipated problems for the cemetery's management. In 1969, at the nadir of the war, Sgt. Michael Sanders, a guard member of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the famed Third Infantry Regiment, told his hometown Louisville Courier Journal that he and some of his fellow guard members were opposed to the war. The army then punished him by shipping him to a combat unit in Vietnam, which the then vigorous and unintimidated anti-war military press condemned and exposed. Sanders, meanwhile, served six months in Vietnam and was honorably discharged.

Internal and serious problems have also plagued the cemetery management and infuriated the families of the dead. Thousands of graves of our forever wars "had been mismarked, lost, or discarded," as McElya carefully explains. It was as if veterans and their families "could not help but imagine their remains mishandled, lost, or accidentally discarded in a cemetery landfill... through the neglect, incompetence, or corruption of the bureaucratic state."

Arlington is beginning to run out of space as the dead in our current and inevitable future wars continue arriving.





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