I’ve long been interested in the human face of war. In Austria, a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp many years ago left me both shaken and speechless. In Vietnam, I was led through what used to be the Demilitarized Zone by a Vietnamese war veteran on the back of his motorbike along the Ho Chi Minh Trail under the blazing sun. In just one day, I heard countless stories from a man who lived to tell them, and saw more gravesites — many for civilians — than I had in my lifetime. In Cambodia, I saw how, after 30 years, the people were still emerging from the devastation of heinous war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. In Rwanda, I paid my respects to the 800,000 Rwandan lives lost at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.
Memorials can be somber and chilling, but are worth visiting as a gesture of respect and remembrance. I almost always make it a point to include them in my travels to gain a deeper understanding of the country and its people, so when I spent a few days in Washington, DC last year, I hopped on the Metro to make my way to Arlington National Cemetery in neighbouring Virginia.
It isn’t the oldest or largest cemetery in the U.S., but it’s the most famous and one of the most prestigious, with over 400,000 fallen soldiers and veterans since the Civil War buried on the 624 acres of historic land on the Potomac River. The cemetery holds up to 30 funeral services a day — a sobering number for one military cemetery.
As solemn as it is, the cemetery is also a place of beauty, grace and tranquillity. The vast, green landscapes of hundred-year-old trees, rolling hills and lush gardens is intended to be a place of peace for both visitors and those laid to rest.
Kennedy Grave Sites
One of the most visited grave sites is that of John F. Kennedy, who became the second U.S. President to be buried there (William H. Taft was the first). Next to his grave, the iconic Eternal Flame (lit by his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who now rests beside him) burns as a symbol of hope.
Also buried nearby are Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward (Ted) Kennedy.
Tomb of the Unknowns
In the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater overlooking Washington is the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), a white marble sarcophagus containing the remains of unidentified American soldiers from World Wars I and II, and the Korean War. Today, it represents all the missing and unknown service members who never made it home.
Through rain, snow and even hurricanes, the Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by hand-selected and meticulously trained members of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry. For them, it’s a rare honour. In full uniform, the on-duty sentinel performs the same routine each day: he or she marches 21 steps, swivels to face the tomb for 21 seconds, clicks his or her heels, shifts the rifle to the other shoulder, then paces 21 steps away from the tomb. The pattern is repeated continuously — all with striking, military precision.
The number 21 is important; it pays tribute to the 21-gun salute, the highest military honour reserved for Presidents and foreign dignitaries. It’s also fired on Memorial Day to commemorate America’s fallen.
Changing of the Guard
The Changing of the Guard ritual, which takes place every hour on the hour October 1 to March 31 and every half hour April 1 to September 30, also incorporates the number 21.
This, I didn’t want to miss.
It’s a quiet, moving ceremony of respect and the highest discipline with white-gloved service members in crisp, dark uniforms of impeccable lines and angles. It’s a dignified, rhythmic dance, a fascinating display of razor-sharp accuracy with a slow cadence punctuated by swift movements. With deliberation and the lightest of footsteps, the relief commander appears, salutes the tomb, then faces the spectators and asks them to rise and remain silent.
What follows is an exercise of iron-willed focus and perfection as the posted sentinel is relieved by the new sentinel. First, the commander conducts a rigorous inspection of both the relief sentinel and his or her weapon. The ceremony ends with all three saluting the Unknowns, and the commander and relief sentinel exiting the plaza in exact unison.
I strongly encourage every visitor to Arlington National Cemetery to witness this time-honoured tradition.
Tomorrow at 11 a.m., as it does on every November 11th, the nation will pay tribute to its veterans — both living and dead — at the Tomb of the Unknowns in an official, wreath-laying ceremony.
After the speeches and moments of silence, the event will come to an end but as participants and spectators — mostly members of the Armed Forces and their families — exit the cemetery to return to their daily lives, the honour guards will continue to keep vigil over the Unknowns long after the gates close. Every minute of every day.