October 28, 2007

sprung and speaking

home from the hospital and trying to stay there. Took it slow for about a week and then got thrown into things again with "freelance" assignments from my old office. Also accepted a speaking opportunity with my Toastmasters club and this is what came of it.

Perfection

I might surprise you if I took you to a place that I think is perfect. It’s an ideal place to get away—without even leaving home. Almost in the heart of the city, it’s a place of quiet and tranquility. It has broad lawns, gentle hills and pleasant walks, terrific views, and shade trees that cool during our hot weather. And despite all this it’s not a place that’s frequented as a playground or a getaway because in addition to all these things it’s a cemetery—Arlington National Cemetery.

I no longer remember my first visit to the cemetery. I’m sure it was during a childhood vacation in Washington. I renewed my acquaintance with Arlington shortly after I moved here. I lived on Columbia Pike, just a short walk from the cemetery, and I found a back gate that was usually left open for walkers and bikers. And no problem even if the guards forgot. When I was younger, I was spryer, and the low fence there was no problem.

I think I went to the cemetery to see the tourist attractions. I was not disappointed. Arlington Cemetery can overwhelm with the Custis-Lee Mansion, where Robert E Lee made a great decision, with the Kennedy gravesites, and with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But I found there was more. Because I used a back entrance, not the ceremonial entrance; because my trip was not hostage to the schedule and the route of the Tourmobile, I think I was in more of a position to appreciate the majesty and the beauty of the cemetery.

The graves in the back of the cemetery are older and less frequently visited. There you can appreciate the stillness of the cemetery. On foot and far away from the attractions you can better appreciate the size of the cemetery and the number who rest there. And you can take time to read markers that tell of many lives shortened by war and many deeds of bravery. As you make your way through the memorials you cannot help but be impressed by the great names of American history—L’Enfant, Lee, Lincoln, Taft, Kennedy, Warren, MacArthur, Chenault, and Grissom, even Abner Doubleday, honored as the inventor of baseball, to whose grave I’d be making a visit this weekend if the Indians could have won just one more game—but it is the less familiar and less known stones that hold the history and the meaning of Arlington Cemetery. And as I have visited it is the numbers, the order, and the stillness that communicate the perfection of the place.

If I could just fix Arlington Cemetery in my mind as a place of perfection, as a place of honor for those who served selflessly and well, I’d be done. But I fear that the legacy that has been left us by those who have served is being misused. At Arlington, we honor just a fraction of those who have served our nation. I cannot believe that so many gave their lives so that those who came after them could do the same. In more than 200 years of our history, in all the history of man, we have not learned to use our lives for nobler purposes. Think of the loneliness that so many families have suffered. Think of the enthusiasm, energy, productivity, and creativity we have all been denied.

And I fear that we are being deceived about the tremendous sacrifice that politicians so lightly ask others to make. In the war in which we are engaged now, I believe, as do many others, that our enemy was misidentified, that our reasons for taking action were manufactured, that our troops were not equipped adequately or given proper medical care, and that our treatment of prisoners has been criminal. Despite optimistic predictions from some, I do not think that our actions are leading to a glorious victory of which our nation can be proud. I think it is far more likely that we have lost our standing among nations, that we will have incited rather than put an end to terror, and that we have ensured a future of unrest, not peace.

It’s hard for me to name Arlington Cemetery as I voice my skepticism about our war. When I first moved here and watched the Changing of the Guard ceremony, I understood that it included everyone who served in our military, whether he had fallen in battle or survived to fight for freedom in some other way. It included my father, as it included many people that you have known and loved. I cannot include them in my disbelief.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say that every generation has to make its own reputation. It’s up to us to find an honorable way through the challenges and mistakes of our time, to find our own solutions. But those who answered the call in the past, who found their way through the difficulties of their own time, can continue to rest in the perfection of their work.