The Legacy of Arlington National Cemetery

in Contemporary Politics by

Each time my dad finds himself in Washington DC, he visits the Arlington National Cemetery. As a former special operations Army aviator, he conducted countless missions and was good friends with many of the Tier-1 operators buried in these hallowed grounds. To him, it is a deeply-personal trip; many of his friends killed-in-action left behind loving wives and kids. 

I recently got to join him for one such trip. As we walked through the sprawling 600+ acres to get to Section 60, where many of the post-9/11 casualties are laid to rest, I was awed by the sheer magnitude of the cemetery. Upon an expanse of rolling hills, over 400,000 pristine gravestones stand in neat, somber rows. The cemetery dates all the way back to the Civil War, when Union soldiers were first buried in what had previously been the grounds of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s estate. Since then, US soldiers from all American-fought wars, 2 US presidents and even 4000 former slaves have all been buried in the grounds of Arlington. 

One thing that struck me as I walked through Section 60 is the egalitarianism of the cemetery. Generals are buried alongside privates, who may also rest next to a medal of honor recipient. Each of these men and women have something in common; they were patriots who cared deeply about their country and performed their duties with honor and bravery. For this reason, each and every person laid to rest in the Arlington National Cemetery is honored with the same, utmost respect. Indeed, on Memorial Day of each year, the Old Guard places an American flag in front of each and every grave to honor America’s fallen. 

But there is one problem plaguing Arlington National Cemetery. It is running out of room. Currently, service members who die while on active duty, retired members of the Armed Forces, prisoners of war, and recipients of the military’s highest honors are all eligible to be buried in the Grounds. Each day, there are around 25 burials, equating to over 7,000 burials a year. At this rate, the cemetery can only stay open for another 25 years, due to space constraints. After all, Arlington National Cemetery is situated against a six-lane highway, and the remaining sides are blocked by developments. This is an issue for the government, which wants to keep Arlington going for at least another 150 years.

Arlington has already enacted multiple policies to save room. They encourage cremation as a space-efficient alternative to in-ground burial. And the old practice of burying family members side by side has been modified, so that caskets are now buried together vertically. But these practices can only achieve so much. The only feasible option to slow the in-stream of burials would be to tighten the rules for who can be buried here. It is a hard decision to make, as a careful balance must be maintained between the site’s egalitarian ideals and the harsh reality of a landlocked site. 

Still, the Army’s latest proposal dictates that only service members killed in action, or recipients of the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, may be allowed to be buried in Arlington. Notably, this would lead to fewer burials in a whole year than what currently occurs in a single week. While it may exclude thousands of currently eligible veterans, I believe this is the right choice to make. There are over a hundred military cemeteries in the US, although Arlington is by far the most prominent. By enacting stricter policy now, we can guarantee that the generation growing up today has the chance to be buried alongside some of the nation’s most prominent military leaders and patriots. 

Arlington National Cemetery serves as a powerful reminder that freedom and opportunity for all does not come easily, but instead requires great sacrifices by a long timeline of heroic men and women. To continue this cultural significance, it is imperative that generations for centuries to come may also have the privilege to rest in the historic grounds alongside Union soldiers, former presidents, and the heroes whose graves my dad frequents.

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