ARLINGTON, Va. — Arlington National Cemetery is huge.
I’d been to Punchbowl, also known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and expected something similar. I wasn’t wrong; the mood is similarly somber and dignified. But the sheer size of Arlington, the number of veterans buried there and the number of mourners and visitors paying their respects gives the monument a unique gravitas.
The cemetery and memorial at Punchbowl cover a little more than 100 acres and is the final resting place for somewhere around 40,000 veterans. Arlington, by comparison, is more than 600 acres of winding roads and footpaths with some 300,000 burial plots.
And still, the numbers don’t do the experience at Arlington justice.
Around every corner, there’s a hillside speckled with white grave markers, with parallel rows stretching off toward the horizon. They’re spaced in such a way that every few steps as you walk, markers align anew and create different lines heading into the distance. The geometry is particularly overwhelming when you realize each white dot represents a life, a man or woman who served their country.
A closer look at some of the markers reveals that many of those buried here did not die while serving. Some lived full lives, reaching 70 or 80 or 90 years old.
But others did not. Section 60, sometimes termed the “saddest acre” in America, is where many casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest.
The cemetery is enormous, and always growing.
On the day I was there, I turned down a semi-deserted path and found myself alone with the silence until a funeral procession passed. First a normal passenger sedan with a man who asked me to not take any photos, then two soldiers in full military dress, then around 20 more rows of three servicemen or servicewomen apiece, all carrying rifles and marching in lockstep, largely oblivious to my presence save for two or three of the most piercing split-second glances I’ve ever experienced.
My breath catches in my throat. They were followed by seven white horses pulling a cart with a flag-draped coffin and a single black horse with no rider, empty military boots facing backward in the stirrups. I swallow hard. Bringing up the rear was a color guard and a line of about a dozen cars full of friends and family. Some of the faces in the windows looked no older than me. They pass. I exhale.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, about a mile walk from the entrance, groups of school children holding smartphones but admirably quiet crowd on a short set of steps. A few feet away, veterans sitting in wheelchairs with matching hat-and-jacket ensembles gather with a good view of a single wreath as a single soldier mans his post.
He walks back and forth, switching his rifle from one shoulder to the other at each end of his predetermined route. Where he turns on his heel and clicks his boots together, the rubber mat has been gradually worn all the way through, now revealing a dinner-plate-sized patch of stone tile below.
A sergeant oversees the changing of the guard, meticulously inspecting the weapon of the incoming watchman. Every motion is carefully executed. After, the sergeant brings a new wreath out to put next to the tomb, and the crowd disperses.
On the way back to where I started, I make a diversion to see the memorial to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 49 years ago this month. A small flame burns, hissing from the effort in a brisque wind.
A few days after my visit, another president will come to Arlington. Barack Obama’s Veterans Day was set to include a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns and a remembrance ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater.
It seems like a good way to turn the page from an exhausting and divisive campaign.
The men and women buried at Arlington, like those buried at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, were a diverse group. Some headstones are adorned with crosses, others with Jewish stars. If it seems like members of Congress can’t work together today, the Confederate Memorial here serves as a reminder of what real discord can look like.
The one thing that brought them to Arlington, to stay together eternally, was their service.
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