Arlington, Virginia: Past glories

THERE is nothing like Arlington in Britain, a national cemetery for all who have died in the service of their country. London has St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, with their grand memorials, and the great graveyards of endless war dead in Flanders, Changi and Normandy. But Arlington is all those, and more.

Once a farm, it belonged to Robert E Lee, who was offered the command of the Union Army at the start of the American Civil War but whose loyalties lay with his home state of Virginia instead. He  became the leader of the Confederate Army, fighting against overwhelming odds time and again until a major defeat at Gettysburg turned the tide against him.

Lee left Arlington at the start of the war and it taken over by the Union Army as a training camp and fort to protect Washington DC. His wife’s beloved rose gardens were turned into a burial plot for Union soldiers, and it is hardly surprising that the family decided not to return after the war. It was later bought by the government to become a national cemetery.

Here you will find John F Kennedy and his brothers lying side by side, as well as military dead from every war of the past 150 years, through Korea and Vietnam to both world wars and now Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 24-hour Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have worn a rust-stained path in the stone paving with their boots  as the dead keep coming.

If you have been in Afghanistan, you have some idea of the scale of military operations there, with massive camps and endless lines of equipment. For Britain, it is the biggest operation since World War II and even for America, it is stretching the budget to breaking point.

But, for most of us that war seems to be very far away. A visit to Arlington, to see the poignant sight of yet another coffin being lowered into the ground, brings it all too sadly home. Arlington has run out of space and is expanding. If the politicians who send men and women to war were asked to dig the plots here, perhaps we would have fewer wars.

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