Books In Brief

November/December, 2009

Here is an intriguing history of a true American shrine. The first Soldier laid to rest at Arlington was buried on 13 May 1864, a month before Robert E. Lee’s family plantation became a national cemetery. Fifteen chapters bring home the immensity of the more than 300,000 people, from privates to Presidents, who are interred in the 624 acres.

“A Splendid Little War” tells of the horrific explosion on the USS Maine at Havana Harbor in 1898, when more than 260 U.S. servicemen lost their lives. Not unexpectedly, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt was quick to advocate the punishment of Spain for “an act of dirty treachery.” In 1919, the ship’s mast became the centerpiece of the Maine Memorial at Arlington.

“Known but to God” describes the funeral of the Unknown Soldier. General John J. Pershing, the new Army chief of staff, insisted on walking behind the caisson during the five-mile trek from Capitol Hill to the new Memorial Amphitheater completed in 1920. After his introduction and the Lord’s Prayer, President Warren G. Harding presented the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross to the unidentified Soldier.

“The Nastiest Little War,” in the words of historian S. L. A. Marshall, was that waged in Korea for three years. The butcher’s bill for this “limited war” was more than 36,576 U.S. military personnel. Perhaps I missed its description in the book, but I would note that the Korean War Memorial at Arlington is certainly the starkest presentation of combat troops that I have ever seen.

Robert Poole, former executive editor of National Geographic magazine, has done excellent work. Many veterans are apt to say that Arlington National Cemetery proves the federal government can do something right—and Poole certainly underscores that sentiment.