The Homecoming

Other burials would be for young combatants returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, now headed for Section 60 of the cemetery, where their numbers had grown in recent years. Every funeral, run by specialty units from the uniformed services, was made memorable by the solemn ritual and the attention to detail that crisply pressed young soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, or coastguardsmen brought to the assignment— carrying caskets, firing salutes, slow- marching in formation, driving caissons, folding flags, and offering comfort to friends and family around the grave.

No other nation goes to the effort the United States does to recover and pay tribute to its war dead, a military tradition older than ancient Athens. There, in 431 B.C., selected warriors were returned from the Peloponnesian battlefield with great ceremony, each tribe represented by a dead fighter borne home in a cypress coffin, with one empty bier representing all of the missing, “that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered,” wrote Thucydides. “The bones are laid in the public burial place, which is in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls. Here the Athenians always bury those who have fallen in war.”1 The historian might have been describing Arlington. Since the time of Thucydides, societies have developed countless ways of honoring their war dead— by building monuments to those they could not recover, by elevating one unknown warrior to stand for all who sacrificed, by designating holidays for decorating graves with flowers, by establishing national cemeteries on foreign soil to recognize those who died far from home.

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