Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Mon 29 Nov 2010 21:16
Today was much warmer than yesterday, mostly because the wind had moderated, so that made it much more pleasant being out and about. After breakfast, we caught the Metro from accross the road out to the Arlington Cemetery. The Metro system is modern and very cheap - just over £1 per journey - but it's so dimly lit down there. I don't know what it is about America but they like to keep things dark. I suspect they've replaced all their lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones that don't work very well.
Once we emerged, blinking, back into the daylight, we walked through the visitor's centre and into the cemetery proper. It's a very odd place and we don't really have an equivalent in the UK. Although everyone interred there has served their country, it's not really a war grave as it seem that many of them died years after their service. Most are remembered with a simple white marble headstone but Generals and Admirals seem to be able to choose a larger memorial. The largest of all is for JFK, complete with Eternal Flame. That bit is modest but there is a semi-circular courtyard below with fine views of Washington accross the Potomac and incised quotes from his life.
We walked up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers to watch the changing of the guard which they do every hour (or half-hour in the summer). A lone sentry patrols in front of the tomb in immaculate uniform with a polished gun, bayonet and Aviator sunglasses. At midday, a Sergeant marches out, tells us onlookers to stand up and be quiet and then does an elaborate inspection of the incoming soldiers gun before they perform a choreographed handover. I tried to find it impressive but, in the end, it was faintly silly. I think the big problem is the sunglasses that they all wear throughout. They make it seem like they have something to hide.
After the ceremony, we explored the National Amphitheatre (everything is Washington is National) where they hold remembrance services. It's a stunning space made from pure white marble that glows in the sunlight. The simple circular shape made it seem sombre and yet uplifting. Nearby are the memorials to the crews of the two Space Shuttles that were lost which only emphasised once again how brave you have to be to go into space.
A bit further on, there is the mansion which belonged to Robert E Lee before the Civil War. He was offered the job of leading the Union armies but felt that loyalty to his state (Virginia) outweighed that which he felt to the Union. He resigned his Union commission and headed South to lead the Army of North Virginia. In a fit of barely concealed revenge, the Union government promptly confiscated his house and used it as a burial ground for their dead, thinking that this would mean Lee could never return home It's been the burial place of the USA's honoured dead ever since.
I was trying to get a handle on what the whole place is about. I suppose it's a bit like Lincoln said about the Gettysburg dead hallowing the ground more than any living person could. Arlington hallows the USA itself - or, at least, it's intended to. It's the nation's shrine. This seems to be a nation founded on words and death. The words are written in stone all around and sanctified by the dead soldiers at the far end of the National Mall. The ultimate American is someone who said a lot of good words and then died while trying to carry them out - JFK being the nearest to that ideal.
It's very different from the way England carries on. I think we find it difficult to take anything anyone says too seriously but here in the US, they really mean what they say. They're prepared to write it in stone and then die for it. They really are prepared to fight and die for their ideals. I think the downside is that they're not prepared to look too far into those ideals and see the contradictions lurking there - slave owners declaring universal equality being only one example.
We spent the afternoon back in the Air and Space museum as Andrea wanted to do some filming but it wasn't long before we were exhausted with all our walking around so we were back in the hotel soon after 5pm and we just had our dinner downstairs. It's been quite an experience here in Washingon DC. The city was created purely to be the Nation's Capital so it doesn't feel like a real city atall, more like a government theme park. The architecture is self-consciously grand and harps back to the ideals of republican Greece and Rome but, in the end, that just makes the place look like Whitehall. The distinctive thing is the monuments which are neo-classical attempts to deify men whose greatest skill was as wordsmiths.
In the end, it all feels very English. Just not the same version of English which remained in control back in the Old Country. This is more like the idealistic, pamphlet-writing republican England of our Civil War. High ideals and self-sacrifice mixed with a healthy dose of holier-than-thou hypocrisy. England decided it was all a bit too serious and that we'd be better off with Royalty-Lite but the Americans have stuck with it. Maybe they're right that George Washington resigning his Commission is the most important moment in their National History. Perhaps that enabled them to carry on experimenting with Republicanism whereas our version, Cromwell, couldn't resist the temptation and became a dictator. Washinton's example is so strong that the worlds most powerful military is still willing to subject itself to a civil administration. Perhaps that's why it's his monument which marks the central axis of this city. A towering monument to a deed and one of the few that doesn't rely on the power of words.