Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Our hometown joined others around the nation April 6 to mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into what we now call World War I.

As some 60 officials and citizens gathered in the county building (a rain threat canceled plans to assemble at the war memorial in Clarendon), I recalled how long I’ve been emotional about this often-forgotten Great War.

Hitchhiking through France in 1971, I was astonished to see that every village had a memorial listing names of locals felled fighting the Germans.

The grand-scale event — to which Arlington has a slew of strong connections — caused 38 million deaths, including 116,000 U.S. soldiers. Among them are the 13 Arlingtonians listed — segregated by race — on the American Legion War Memorial erected in 1931.

Five from Cherrydale had already been honored on a 1926 Daughters of the American Revolution monument off Lee Highway. One, Lt. John Lyon, became the namesake for Post 3150 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Another 2,100 U.S. dead were brought to Arlington Cemetery in 1921 for a record-size expansion and reburial — a move that inspired the cemetery to build the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an amphitheater.

This March, the cemetery Visitors Center mounted an inspiring exhibit with World War I photos and artifacts grouped by themes of combat, technology, mobilization, and the role of women and blacks. It notes that Arlington Cemetery’s plots for decades were racially segregated, but not the overseas cemeteries.

Co-curating the exhibit was the American Battlefields Monuments Commission, created in 1923 to care for graves overseas and now headquartered at Arlington’s Courthouse Square.

At a Pentagon commemoration on April 6, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley asked his audience, “Are we that much smarter than those who came before us 100 years ago today?”

The county’s ceremony kicked off its World War I Commemoration Task Force’s planning of a 19-month series of events aided by schools and nonprofits. At a podium bedecked with a dough-boy helmet and poster with the slogan “Remembering the Spirit of 1917,” County board member John Vihstadt said the war helped convert Arlington “from a sleepy rural community to modern urban county.”

Five-decade Arlingtonian Ed Bearss, historian emeritus at the National Park Service and still giving Smithsonian tours at 93, described the horrors of poison gas and machine gun warfare. His father fought the war with the Marines and seldom discussed it–its drama overshadowed by World War II, Bearss said.

New task force chair historian Allison Finkelstein laid out goals of engaging diverse groups, encouraging community service and confronting “the more difficult issues wrapped up in memorializing this war, chiefly, [its] racial legacy.”

One of her consultations will be with Karen Nightengale, president of the Arlington NAACP. Nightengale weighed in months ago with a proposal to update the 1931 plaque that listed “colored” veterans Arthur Morgan and Ralph Lowe below the 11 white heroes.

In an interview, she told me her goal would be a new marker that “does not distinguish between negro and white.” But she acknowledges the hesitation to remove the plaque that has been there 86 years. “I understand why the original was put up the way it was,” she added, impressed that folks in the 1920s even “had the due diligence” to include the “colored” dead.

Finklestein promised to “find consensus without erasing history.”

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At a WWI commemoration at the French Embassy, I learned something about the first aviation death in history, which occurred in Arlington.

It was on Sept. 17, 1908, that Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge died in a test flight at Fort Myer piloted by Orville Wright.

To recount that incident in his recent biography of the Wright Brothers, famed author David McCullough came to Fort Myer and demanded to see the exact spot, I was told by Tim Grove, chief of learning for the Air and Space Museum. That site is now a parking place.