Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Tomb of the Unknowns

My office had a Staff Appreciation Day outing last Friday. As part of it, we went out to Arlington Memorial Cemetery to see the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

I’ve been there before, but as always, I appreciate the solemnity of the ceremony. In itself, there isn’t that much to it – one soldier inspects another, then marches him up to his post and marches the previous guard back off duty. The true importance of it is in knowing what’s behind it – the guards perform the same duty exactly the same way all day every day. Some of the incidentals are different – the soldiers wear the more comfortable tactical uniforms at night, the shifts are longer when they aren’t providing extra photo ops for the tourists – but the duty itself never changes. Twenty-one steps to the left. Face the Tomb and pause for twenty-one seconds. Twenty-one steps to the right. Face the Tomb…the whole point of the duty, the honor of it, is to do it the same way every time. Every hour. Every day. In all types of weather – I saw a picture in the Pentagon of a Tomb Guard standing his post, with two inches of snow on the brim of his hat. His face showed nothing but the same steady expression of every other Tomb Guard on every other day.

I noticed something that gives me a little more hope for our society than I normally have, too. The Cemetary was filled with all sorts of people, including many groups of high school and middle school students on field trips. In most other places, one would expect yelling kids, loud adults on cell phones, litter all over, and so on. For the most part, it wasn’t there. Throughout the entire cemetary, the huge groups of kids…were subdued. The adults mostly left their phones in their pockets. At the Tomb itself, people stayed silent when asked, stood when asked, and stayed still until the end of each ceremony. In part, that was a result of strict enforcement – the Park Guards were quick to let people know about small violations like stepping over chain barricades, and quicker to stop worse violations, like people taking pictures of funerals. But I think the solemn nature of the place has an effect even on today’s cynical and rude populace.

While I was there, though, I found myself wondering about the full details of the Tomb Guards’ Special Orders. I’m sure there are pages and pages of details about how to march, how to conduct inspection, how to announce a wreath-laying ceremony, and so on. Those guards, though, are soldiers first, on the most important guard post in the Army. I don’t know for certain that their rifles are working models, nor if they are issued ammunition. I DO know that the civilian Park Guards would be happy to stop someone who wanted to do something stupid, so that the Honor Guard could continue to walk his post undisturbed. But I also know that those rifles have a perfectly functional bayonet, and the importance of this duty is drummed into each Guard for months before he or she gets to perform the duty. If some idiot decided that throwing paint on the Tomb would make a beautiful political statement, and a picture on the front page of the paper…I would not bet that the orders preclude lethal force. And if I were writing them, it would be specifically allowed.

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