Last of all, the motorcycle vets padded onto the grass and knelt, one by one, at each of the caskets to retire their MIA bracelets. Dressed in faded jeans and camouflage, the bikers looked incongruous among the spit- and- polish crowd that day, but when they stepped up to a grave, stood straight, and snapped off a salute, you could see that they had been soldiers too, and some of them were crying. With minor modifications, Arlington’s rituals would be familiar to Thucydides or to Homer, who places the climactic scene of his Iliad not in battle but during a lull in the fighting, as Hector’s body is carried home by his father and prepared for a grand public burial.2 The old pattern endures at Arlington, where friends, family, and comrades gather to give thanks for a warrior’s sacrifice, to honor the military virtues, and all too often to make bearable the most unbearable loss of all, the death of a young combatant cut down in the prime of life. The age- old rituals ease the grief, if only for a moment, in a flourish of ceremony, with brass bands, a blaze of rifle salutes, and flags streaming their battle ribbons from the old wars in Mexico, Germany, Guadalcanal, Belleau Wood, and all the others that link today’s warriors with those who marched into combat before them.
Every conflict the United States ever fought is remembered in ceremony and stone at Arlington, none more so than the Civil War, which gave the cemetery its most recognizable traditions. The three- rifle volley signaling the end of a cease- fire; the haunting tune we know as Taps, described as the most beautiful of all trumpet calls; the horse- drawn caissons for transporting dead soldiers from the front; the elaborate honors reserved for unknown soldiers— all of these originated in America’s bloodiest conflict.3