In Europe, they have war cemeteries. Perhaps this is because the major European nations got into the habit of fighting wars before they coalesced as nations. Ironically, the building of Lenin's Tomb in the 1920s was one of the first "national" cemeteries (as contrasted to war cemeteries or royal crypts) created to enshrine a particular concept of nationhood. While no one shares Lenin's eminence, during the Soviet years burial at the Kremlin wall was the equivalent of interment in Westminster Abbey or the Yasukuni Shrine. It's now lost that status, at least for a time. Boris Yeltsin is buried in Novedevichiy Cemetery, several miles from the Kremlin, and Mikhail Gorbachev will be buried there next to his wife when he passes on.
On June 15, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed an order to establish what is today Arlington National Cemetery. For a nation which sometimes seems not to have much consciousness of its own past, this was a real step forward. I confess that Arlington is one of my favorite places to visit in Washington. I have friends buried there; when I pay them a visit, I always run across the tomb of someone eminent. While Arlington is not the oldest of our national cemeteries (we in South Carolina can brag that the one in Beaufort is older), it serves as a repository of national memory. Tourists flock to the Kennedy grave sites, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Each of these is a commemoration of something significant from our nation's past.
One expects major events to happen in Arlington. Five years ago, we were in Washington for Memorial Day. My wife and I were exploring some previously unvisited parts of the grounds, as were numerous. When from the loudspeakers issued the strains of "Hail to the Chief," everyone stopped, even those nowhere near where the President was about to perform the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. If George Washington or Robert E. Lee had ridden up at that moment, we'd have been astonished, but not entirely surprised.
This is the time of year that commemorates establishment of the U.S. Army. On this date, George Washington was called to command of the newly formed Continental Army during the Revolution. As the nation's senior service, the Army presence is overpowering on this ground. Each service has its ceremonial units, its cherished commemorations. At Arlington, the line between war cemeteries and national cemeteries vanishes, all under the watchful eyes of "First to fight for the right." Happy Birthday, U.S. Army.