Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Nearly 150 of us bundled up on this chilly Veterans Day Sunday to pack the sliver that is Clarendon Park for Arlington’s marking of the 100th anniversary of the end of the “war to end all wars.”

Somber reflective remarks and rituals combined with light lyrics of “Over There” sung by the Arlingtones as traffic whizzed by on three boulevards.

Arlington’s event stood apart from countless others with the unveiling of new interpretive panel addressing the delicate issue of the local memorial’s segregated tribute to fallen troops.

“If you were on the battlefield in 1918, these are some of the sounds you would hear—until 11 a.m.,” said emcee Linden Dixon of Arlington’s American Legion Post 139. There followed a recording of explosions and rifle fire followed by birds chirping.

At precisely 11 a.m. came the moment of silence. Followed by a traditional bell ringing. Then a three-volley salute by Arlington police riflemen. And a bugler playing “Taps.” All proceeded by a color guard wearing doughboy uniforms.

“The brave Americans memorialized behind me on this monument,” Dixon  said, “in 2018 are especially significant because, unfortunately, we know today the guns are not silent.” He mentioned ongoing combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The event staged by county staff, the World War I Commemoration Task Force and veterans groups drew a crowd of all ages and colors, including regulars from the Arlington Historical Society. Veterans of Foreign Wars came from as far away as Danville.

All appreciated the doses of century-old culture—the Opera Nova singer performing “God Bless America” and Arlington poet laureate Katherine Young reciting poetry of WWI veteran Archibald MacLeish. All seemed receptive as speakers noted how “intertwined” our hometown is with the Great War through Arlington Cemetery, Fort Myer, the Marine Corps Memorial.

Marvin Chadab, past president of the Great War Association, wore a doughboy uniform. He knew Frank Buckles, he told me, the last surviving World War I veteran, who was buried in 2011 at Arlington. But Chadab was disappointed he didn’t lie in state in the Capitol.

The unveiling of the interpretive panel came as task force chair Allison Finkelstein expressed hope that the addition will “breathe life into this too-often overlooked memorial park.” Sketching the war’s impact on borders, America’s global role, women’s rights, civil rights and immigration, she described the original “grass-roots” campaign to build the memorial in the 1920s. The later addition of names of locals lost in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and (since 2013) Afghanistan and Iraq provides evidence of “how Arlington changed with each war,” she said.

The new plaques “contextualize in local and larger history” the forces such as those that led original planners to separate the two “colored” World War I casualties from the 11 whites. That less is known about the two blacks is “part of the continuing legacy of segregation,” Finklestein said. (County history staff may have identified more blacks.)

The plaque focusing on the monument calls it “a reflection of the systemic racism pervasive in Virginia and across the nation.” Another five plaques are planned for Memorial Day, I was told by county staff.

Delivering the finale for the county board was Christian Dorsey. He spoke to the modern era, calling for a “functional zero” goal for homeless veterans. He asked Arlingtonians to let vets know “we’ve got their back.”

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Confession: While reporting on the aforementioned once-a-century war commemoration, I was distracted.

My daughter, we had heard the same Sunday morning, was suddenly scheduled to deliver—a month early—our second grandchild. The whole extended family leapt into action to provide back-up older-child and household care.

Welcome Veterans Day baby James Patrick McKenzie.  May you live to see the World War I Armistice’s 200th .