Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day 2009
Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day 2009

This Memorial Day, President Obama will not be going to Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, Vice President Joe Biden will be providing the executive branch honors. President Obama will be attending Memorial Day services at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside of Chicago. This change of pace has some people outraged.

According to the Washington Post:

Instead of speaking at Arlington, as he did last year and as most presidents have done, Obama will appear at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, the White House said. Vice President Biden will take his place at Arlington, the most prestigious military cemetery in the country and home to Section 60, a large burial ground for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed disappointment at the White House move. “Arlington is hallowed ground, and the center of our nation’s attention on Memorial Day,” Rieckhoff said. “Unfortunately, President Obama and his family will not be there with us.”

Critics — mainly conservatives — have argued that attendance is more important with two wars ongoing. “Obama may talk about the government in the first person, but the men and women lying at Arlington know differently,” commentator Eric Erickson wrote on the conservative site “Of course, Obama really doesn’t like the military, does he.” Fox News blared the headlines: “Trampling on Tradition?” and “Offensive to Soldiers?”

Many veterans don’t think it matters which National Cemetery the President recognizes. There are National Cemeteries all over the United States. Abraham Lincoln established the first 14 National Cemeteries. It seems fitting that the President would attend the one honoring the 16th president.

As far as tradition goes, it might be appropriate to remind the critics that tradition only goes back less than 150 years. Arlington National Cemetery is the former plantation of Robert E. Lee. No soldiers were buried there until towards the end of the Civil War. Lee actually lost the mansion because he couldn’t pay taxes on the place. Additionally, other presidents have not attended Memorial Day ceremonies for numerous reasons:

Obama is not the first president to miss the Arlington ceremony. Ronald Reagan spoke at West Point one year, and went to his California ranch another year. George H.W. Bush, a war veteran, did not go at all. Bill Clinton, who did not serve in Vietnam and had a rocky time with the military, went to Arlington all eight years, and George W. Bush, who also avoided combat service in Vietnam, attended from 2003 onward.

We need to leave politics and honor the war dead. will try to feature something about Memorial Day each of the days over the holiday weekend. Regardless of how one feels about this war, or that war, or the other…we love our vets and we honor those who have died in service, so that we might live free.


22 Thoughts to “Arlington National Cemetery: The Only Hallowed Ground?”

  1. Second-Alamo

    The bumper sticker is great, but you need another line that reads:

    “If you can read this in Spanish, thank a Liberal”

  2. Formerly Anonymous

    Actually, Lee “lost” the estate not because they couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, but because Arlington (under Union occupation at the time) required that the taxes be paid in person. Needless to say neither Lee nor his wife were able/willing to do so.

    Less than six months later, Meigs appropriated the property for a new national cemetery and had troops buried in Mrs. Lee’s garden so as to make it impossible for the Lee’s to ever live there again. He succeeded, although Lee’s successfully sued the US Government after the war to recover compensation…$150,000. (About $3.5 million in today’s dollars.)

    (Resisting the urge to make a comment about this tradition going back “only” 150 years.)

    Dipping my toe into the political side, I don’t see any significance to Obama visiting a different national cemetery on Memorial Day, but I’m not sure about sending Biden in his stead. He seems to have an ongoing problem of saying inappropriate things. (Honestly he seems to be worse at it than Dan Qualye was.) Personally, I would send Gates or Mullen. Somebody who can give a serious, somber speech appropriate to the occasion.

  3. Too bad Obama couldn’t go to both. Perhaps he can stop by at Arlington before heading off to Chicago.

  4. Tom Andrews

    What gets lost in the noise is that when a President performs this sacred duty at Arlington on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, it is not about Arlington or any other National Cemetery. While Arlington is the preeminent National Cemetery-first among equals, the President is not laying a wreath to honor Arlington. The wreath is layed at the Tomb of the Unknown to honor those that are unaccounted for; either at Arlington or another place of honor. It is to honor those still missing as well as the one “known only to God”.

    As the Chief of the US Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard in the late 90’s/early 2000’s I had the privelege to participate in dozens of active duty/retired burials as well as leading the troops up the steps on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day in what is referred to as a “top job”. Trust me, these two 30 minute ceremonies mean more to military members and their families than can be adequately expressed and in my view, the President-ANY President has an obligation to perform this solemn duty above any and all other demands on his time. Wreaths are laid occasionally throughout the year by visiting heads of state and other dignitaries but these two occasions; Memorial Day and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month require nothing less than the President of the United States.

  5. I think that it is not that President Obama is not going to Arlington that sticks in the craw of many. I think that he is going on vacation, AGAIN, and he is not going to Arlington for THAT reason. A man that has his own jet.

    Personally, I’m not upset. I would rather have Vice President Biden there. At least he, I believe, respects the military and their traditions and values. I don’t want a President to appear at the Tomb of the Unknown that seems to value “international” values over American values and goes about apologizing for America in every international speech. Let him stay in Chicago. Golfing. Again.

  6. I got tangled up in Cheney traffic one Veterans Day. I believe it was the one right after 9-11. It never occurred to me to trash Bush for sending Cheney.

    A VP ought to mean something to those in attendance also. I don’t know. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who are disturbed that President Obama is not attending the wreath laying at ANC would be just as disturbed if he did and would look for something to pick at him about regardless. Just a hunch.

    I think it is great that other National Cemeteries will occassionally get a presidential visit. Those buried there deserve no less.

  7. FA, thanks for filling in the historical spots. It was VERY late when this thread went up. There will be others over the weekend.

  8. Cargo, could it be that it appears that way to you because you don’t like him or his policies? I know people used to always feel Bush was on vacation. I think that might have a lot to do with it.

    Do we have higher expectations for our presidents than we do other people?

    In my case, I am just jealous. I have never been able to afford to go away EVERY weekend.

  9. marinm

    It doesn’t upset me that he’s not going to Arlington. Just makes me sad. Very sad.

  10. What on earth do you do when serious things happen, Marin? You all are going to have a long, long 3.5 years ahead of you…even longer if he gets re-elected.

  11. marinm

    I don’t understand the question? I’m just pointing out that having the POTUS at Arlington just makes me sad. I’m not angry, not bitter not wanting to flame the guy. Just makes me sad.

  12. Yes, I feel that way because I truly feel that President Obama does not have the same values as the military, or for that matter, most Americans, especially when it comes to American exceptionalism. I do believe, and take at HIS word, that President Obama wants to transform American society in a way that is detrimental to the US and our values and freedoms.

    I would rather have Vice President Biden. While I don’t agree with his policies either, being a liberal democrat, I don’t believe that Biden wants to “fundamentally transform” America. I believe that he still believes in the values that this country was found upon.

    Let President Obama stay on vacation for the next 2 years. I won’t mind. It wouldn’t harm America.

  13. Is the current prez my favorite? No. I just don’t have the same feelings you all do. There are 3 branches of government.

    You all do remember that the same things were said about Bill Clinton and in some cases, still are being said.

  14. Wolverine

    I have too many years and too much water under the bridge to become overly upset about this and many other things, although I think the post by Tom Andrews was an excellent one and very much to the point. What meant most to me in this thread was the last paragraph about honoring our veterans regardless of one’s personal feelings about war in general or any specific war. I hope I haven’t told this story before. If I have, please just chalk it up to the ageing process.

    Mrs. W and I are both veterans. When I came home from Vietnam in a medevac plane, ill but not wounded, Mrs. W was the first Navy nurse to take care of me in a situation where that illness could have destroyed any career plans I had and changed my life forever. To say the least, I was in a very negative state of mind. I survived, and the illness did not beat me. My reward was that I found Mrs. W and married her in the chapel of the hospital in which I spent eight long months. We were Navy together, so the old Navy saw that you are not issued a girl in your ditty bag always has exceptions.

    After we had finished our service and relocated to Washington for grad school purposes, we made it a point on every Memorial Day and Veterans Day to walk through Arlington to honor the lost. There is one such occasion which we will never forget. It happened on one of the more remote paths through the cemetery on a weekend marked by numerous anti-war street demonstrations in Washington. We came upon an elderly woman on her knees in front of one of those very simple and standard tombstones. The lady was weeping.

    We both went to her and asked if we could help. She looked up at us through her tears and asked: “Did you see who did this?” Our eyes followed her pointing finger to the earth in front of that tombstone. On that tombstone was the name of a very young US Air Force officer who, from the inscribed date of death had apparently died in action in Vietnam at the same time I was there. In front of the tombstone were flowers from a wreath. But the wreath had been shredded and the flowers and leaves rearranged in the shape of the peace symbol used by anti-war demonstrators.

    The elderly lady explained to us that she and her husband had driven to Arlington from a state far away to place a wreath on the tomb of their son. After doing so, they went to lunch, intending to return for one last visit before driving home. And this is what they had found upon their return to the cemetery. I looked around and saw the young officer’s father. He was some distance away, walking round and round a small tree with a haunted look of anger and grief in his eyes. He would not or could not talk. He was so distraught that he couldn’t even bring himself to come back to that grave to speak to us.

    Mrs. W and I bent down to try to rearrange the flowers and the leaves of the wreath in at least a semblance of their original form. In so doing, I told the mother that, from the dates on the tombstone, it looked like I and her son had been in Vietnam at the same time. She looked at me and said suddenly in anguished hope: “Did you know my son? Did you know him?”

    I had to tell her that I had not known her son personally but that I did know him in a way. I told her that I was a Navy guy who was there on the ground, on the rivers, and in the coastal waters. Every once in awhile, I could look up into the sky and see the contrails of a jet plane. I knew that, if I got into trouble which I and my shipmates could not handle, I could make a call on a radio and her son or someone like him would come to my rescue, that silver plane screaming down from the blue sky with guns blazing. So, yes, I did know her son in a certain way. He was one of those who had my back all the time I was there.

    There was little else we could do then except recommend that the elderly couple file a report with the cemetery authorities. We left them there beside the tomb of their son, lost in their personal sorrow. As for us, we were angry. Both of us knew firsthand what it was like to have the uniform disrespected during that terrible period of our history. When I lay on a stretcher in that military hospital receiving center, surrounded by grieviously wounded Marines and sailors, we were advised not to wear our uniforms when we were cleared to go out on liberty call because that would make us targets for anti-war dissenters. That was bad enough. But to see this — to see this on our most hallowed ground was something we just could not abide without developing a deep personal sense of bitterness.

    Thank you, Moon, for those words in the last paragraph of your post. We all must hope that America has learned a lesson and that what happened on that Memorial Day back then will never happen again. And God take good care of that young Air Force pilot who had my back in Vietnam.

  15. Wolverine,

    That….was….lets just say that I have something in my eye.

    And I want to shake your hand if and when I meet you. Your words make me even prouder to be a sailor.

    Have a good Memorial Day. To absent friends…….

  16. “We need to leave politics and honor the war dead. will try to feature something about Memorial Day each of the days over the holiday weekend. Regardless of how one feels about this war, or that war, or the other…we love our vets and we honor those who have died in service, so that we might live free.”

    Amen, Moon

  17. Emma

    Wolverine, you are one of many reasons why I am proud to be an American.

    “Regardless of how one feels about this war, or that war, or the other…we love our vets and we honor those who have died in service, so that we might live free.”

    Moon, you rock!

  18. And thank you for sharing a wonderful story that we all need to hear. I was of age around that time also. There was a way to protest and a way not to protest. I never understood why some of our generation showed such disrespect for the military personnel. It made no sense. Many of them had been drafted and had no choice about serving.

    You certainly thought fast on your feet with that lady and said the right thing. How on earth do you address that kind of nonsense. It makes about as much sense as explaining Westboro Baptist (sic) (and I refuse to call them a church)

    Wolverine, thank you for your service. I hope you will stop by to see the rest of our tribute to the fallen and to those who have served over the weekend. We have something planned every day. One of our very dear friends wrote a beautiful tribute for Memorial Day also.

  19. And by the way, I put the controversial Memorial Day story out today. It was timely and we can debate it. It isn’t quite Memorial Day Weekend. I hope that during the other tributes that we put up over the weekend that we can lay politics aside and honor those who have served and died.

  20. Thanks Emma and I agree with you about Wolverine. I hope all our contributors who are vets will come forward over this weekend so that we can thank you for your service.

    Is anyone rolling with Rolling Thunder?

  21. Wolverine

    And like every mother and father, every spouse, every child of our men and women in military service: “They also serve who stand and wait.”

  22. Yes, those people are also making an extreme sacrifice. Thanks to them from all of us also.

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