Sunday, June 9, 2013 : Arlington, Washington


We are not using the car today. We chose our hotel for its supposed proximity with the metro terminal. As in New York City or Boston, we are not eager to contribute to the shortage of parking space common to all major cities.


Our hotel is actually 6 miles away from the metro terminal and, after enquiring with the hotel staff and the shuttle being unavailable, we take the bus. The ticket machines in the buses do not give change back, and we end up paying $2 tickets that officially cost $1.60.

WMATA SmarTrip

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority


At the metro, trying to buy tickets, we notice that our Visa cards are refused by the machines. We finally end up purchasing two SmarTrips, rechargeable passes that may be used in both the metro and buses.


Here, as in Boston, metro lines have color names. At Pentagon, we change from the yellow to the blue line, and we get off at Arlington Cemetery.


Arlington National Cemetery, which I am visiting for the  second time, is truly a city : 624 acres, 400,000 inhabitants, all deceased, about 20 newcomers each day, and more than 3 million visitors per year.


It is also a place of peace and meditation where, despite the Sunday crowd, we are not going to be disturbed by the noise.


Last but not least, it has its own place in history, which goes beyond the many historical figures buried here. The cemetery was built on the former estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The General, who had joined the Confederate Army when Virginia seceded in 1861, was unable to pay the estate tax, and was therefore considered a fugitive by the Union. His estate was confiscated, and its vast land was used for the first Federal military cemetery, inaugurated in 1864 and largely expanded since then.


Cimetière militaire d'Arlington, entrée du visitor center  Arlington National Cemetery, front porch of the Welcome Center

Arlington National Cemetery, front porch of the Welcome Center


As everywhere, the starting point is the visitor center, called here the Welcome Center. The building, inaugurated in 1990, is inspired by Southern architectural style, with the classical porch with columns.


Inside, the visitor can find a museum about the American Armed Forces, ticket booths and shops. The visit of the cemetery can be lengthy, it is recommended to take water, in case of searing heat.


Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery


After collecting our tickets, we walk to the plaza behind the Welcome Center, where shuttles start from.


It is always possible to visit Arlington on foot but, considering its size, it is not the most recommended way. Shuttles serve the whole cemetery, stopping at several significant places. We can get off one shuttle and climb back on the next one. The visit is commented in English.


Predictably, it is not allowed to visit the cemetery by car.


Arlington National Cemetery, Women in Military Service for America Memorial

Women in Military Service for America Memorial


At the end of Memorial Avenue, coming from the entrance of the cemetery, is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. It should be noted that women have been playing their part in the United States Armed Forces ever since the Revolutionary War, when Margaret Corbin kept on serving the artillery piece of her killed husband.


Quite predictably, the first attempts to integrate women in the Armed Forces were with the nurses. After the 1898 Spanish-American War, in which illness made many more victims than the actual fighting, commanding officers finally understood the necessity to officialize the essential role of women in a previously all-male environment.


Many conflicts, many more or less fortunate integration attempts and a lot of dithering within a rather conservative male officer corps still happened before the final barriers to women advancement in the Armed Forces fell down. It took until the early 1990s and the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm (a.k.a. Gulf War I) to clarify the role of women in combat units.


The Memorial honors no less than 2.5 million women having served, or presently serving, in the United States Armed Forces.


Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery


The cemetery is divided in 60-odd sections. Some, like the one shown on the picture, are covered with identical regulation headstones. Others have more elaborate monuments, many with a religious sign.


The cemetery has rescinded burial segregation in 1948, following a decree by President Harry S. Truman. Those who fell for their country rest side by side, with no distinction of ethnicity, belief or gender.


The requirements to be buried at Arlington are relatively straightforward. They are as follows :

  • Having died in active duty within the United States Armed Forces (which excludes training),
  • Having served in active duty within the Armed Forces, and having been honorably discharged,
  • Having been the spouse, widow, widower or minor child of someone who served in active duty in the Armed Forces and was honorably discharged,
  • Having held elected office within the United States Government and, if having served in active duty within the Armed Forces, having been honorably discharged,
  • And that's about it.


As we can see, the American citizenship is absolutely not a requirement. The emphasis is put on honor more than on status.


Arlington National Cemetery, graves of John and Jacqueline Kennedy

Graves of John and Jacqueline Kennedy


Our first stop is at the Kennedy Family Gravesite. A WWII pilot, the 35th President's elder brother was accidently killed above the south of England on August 12, 1944. The President himself had served in the Navy from 1941 to 1945, despite his chronic back problems. Under the provision for family members, his two younger brothers, Bob, a candidate in the 1968 Presidential election, and Ted, Senator of Massachusetts from 1962 to 2009, were buried here as well. Although she later remarried Aristotle Onassis, his widow Jacqueline, who died in 1994, rests at the side of her slain husband, as their two stillborn children.


The assassinated President's first grave was a very simple plot of grass surrounded with a white wooden fence, much less elaborate than the Massachusetts granite monument we now have under our eyes. The Kennedy family, in agreement with the cemetery authorities, wanted a monument more suitable to welcome the millions of visitors who, year after year, pay a last tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his loved ones. This new monument was inaugurated in 1967.


Close by, the graves of his brothers Joseph Jr.Robert and Edward are marked by very simple headstones in the grass.


Arlington House, General Lee's mansion

Arlington House, General Lee's mansion


The Kennedy Family Gravesite is located on the slope of Arlington Hill, whose top is occupied by Arlington House, General Lee's former mansion, which we are going to visit later in the day.


From the Kennedy Monument to Arlington House, the slope is rather steep, and the cemetery deemed the land unsuitable for burials. The lawns here are therefore absolutely void of any graves.


Arlington National Cemetery, Tombs and Monument of the Unknowns

Tombs and Monument of the Unknowns


We take the shuttle again and take pictures of a few famous, or less famous, graves.


Only two former Presidents are buried at ArlingtonWilliam Howard Taft and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Many more Presidents have served in the Armed Forces (the names of Washington, Grant, Eisenhower naturally come to mind), but chose to be buried in their home state instead.


The shuttle slows down so that the passengers may take pictures of tombstones and monuments, which are in abundance at Arlington.


Sometimes, inside corners, we can enjoy a higher and higher view of the Federal capital.


Then we stop at the Memorial Amphitheater, simultaneously museum, amphitheater and place of remembrance. We are going to spend a while here.


Arlington National Cemetery, Armed Forces flags and Memorial Day plaque

Armed Forces flags and Memorial Day plaque


The Memorial Amphitheater hosts a museum in which many objects, medals and flags related to, or offered to, the United States Armed Forces, are displayed.


The plaque on the picture was dedicated to commemorate the designation, in 1868, of May 30th as Memorial Day, to honor all the men and women who lost theirs lives in conflicts waged by the United States Armed Forces. Later, a decision by President Nixon moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, thus creating a three-day weekend. Memorial Day unofficially launches the summer season in the United States.


Arlington National Cemetery, Changing of the Guard at the Monument of the Unknowns

Changing of the Guard at the Monument of the Unknowns


On the plaza in front of the museum are the monument and tombs of unknown soldiers, one for World War I, one for World War II and the Korean War, and one for the Vietnam War. On the plaza, a soldier in his prestige uniform permanently guards the monument and tombs, pacing the plaza according to a carefully choreographed ritual, walking 21 steps each way. Number 21 is a mark of great honor in the United States Armed Forces : during National funerals, the casket is saluted with 21 cannon shots.


The changing of the Guard is also a precisely choreographed ritual. An officer walks onto the plaza with a new soldier, then walks off with the previous one, there again walking 21 steps before each change of direction.


It is Sunday, there are many visitors on the museum steps to watch the changing of the Guard. We see the ritual twice at a 30-minute interval, visiting the museum in between.


Arlington National Cemetery, Space shuttle Challenger Memorial, 1986

Space shuttle Challenger Memorial, 1986


Across the street from the museum, Section 46 is especially rich in various memorials dedicated to events in which members of the Armed Forces played a role. In this section are the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial (1986), the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial (2003), and the attempted Iran Rescue Mission Monument, 1980.


It is occasionally forgotten, but NASA crews included many officers who had served in the Navy or Air Force. They are eligible for Arlington.


Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery, Audie Murphy's grave  grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII

Grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII


A little further, also in Section 46, is the the grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of WWII.


We also see the monument dedicated to the Spanish-American War Nurses Monument, and the Nurses Memorial, dedicated to all of them.


Then we see the USS Maine Mast. Battleship USS Maine was sunk in the port of Havana, Cuba, in 1898, starting the Spanish-American War. The 165 sailors and officers of USS Maine buried at Arlington are the first victims of a conflict waged by the United States to have died outside American territory.


Arlington National Cemetery, Grave of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, the man who designed the map of Washington

Grave of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, the man who designed the map of Washington


We have taken the shuttle again to Arlington House, General Robert E. Lee's mansion. From the top of the hill, the view of the Federal capital, especially with a nice weather like today, is gorgeous. Just this sight deserves a visit.


Just before us lies the grave of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, the French-born architect who designed the plan of Washington. Serving, like Lafayette, in George Washington's Continental Army, his status as an officer of the United States makes him plainly eligible for an Arlington burial, although he was born in the French rural district of Eure-et-Loir.


Useless to say, from the onset of the Civil WarArlington Hill and General Lee's mansion have been occupied by the Union Army, not so much in retaliation against Lee, but for purely tactical reasons. The pretty close Federal capital would have indeed made a very easy target, if the Confederates had installed a few artillery batteries on top of the hill.


Quite oddly, history does not remember any effort by the Confederates to take this position, in spite of its outstanding military value.


Washington and the Lincoln Memorial, from Arlington Hill

Washington and the Lincoln Memorial, from Arlington Hill


Right under our eyes, at the base of the hill, is Arlington Memorial Bridge, connecting, in a symbol of restored unity, the Federal capital, which had remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Virginia, which had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Memorial Avenue, leading into the cemetery, and the bridge draw a large perspective that extends to the Lincoln Memorial, the Greek temple-shaped white building.


Arlington House, General Lee's mansion, the large living room

Arlington House, General Lee's mansion, the large living room


General Lee's mansion looks rather modest, for a man of his rank and social status. It is a relatively large house, decently built with sturdy materials, but with none of the ornaments that would remind us the often ostentatious luxury of late-19th century mansions on 5th Avenue, or of contemporary Hollywood.


And this time, we can take pictures inside !


On the walls are hanging portraits of the General's ancestors. We remember he had married Mary Anna Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington's. By some peculiar shortcut of history, the greatest military hero of the Confederation is, in a way, related to the greatest military hero of Independence.


Of the immense former estate, only the mansion and a small part of the gardens have been preserved, along with the slave quarters, built smartly enough to allow people on both levels to exit thru a single door.


Then we take the shuttle for the final time and go back to the Welcome Center. The weather is quite fine, we cross Arlington Memorial Bridge on foot.


Washington, Lincoln Memorial, rear view

Lincoln Memorial, rear view


We are now in Washington, the Federal capital. We are going to spend the rest of this day visiting the Memorials, those monuments erected on the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin honoring the heroes that the Union chose for itself, frequently, but not always, former Presidents.


The National Mall, more simply called The Mall, is a park that crosses all the center of Washington, from Arlington Memorial Bridge on  the West to the Capitol on the East, on about 2 miles. It is delimited by two large avenues, Constitution Avenue on the North, and Independence Avenue on the South. It is mostly composed of large expanses of lawn, which had their moments of glory during the Civil Rights movement or against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.


Almost half-way from the Capitol, the Mall extends to the North with the Ellipse, a park that goes up to the White House gardens. At the intersection is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot high obelisk. We are not going to visit it, it has been significantly damaged by the 2011 Virginia Earthquake, despite a relatively modest 5.8 magnitude. At the time of our visit, it is surrounded with scaffolds and safety nets. It is due to reopen on May 12, 2014.


The city of Washington was built on wetlands and swamps, that need to be regularly drained. This what the Tidal Basin, a 107-acre reservoir, is here for : it fills up at high tide and empties at low tide, draining excess water from the former wetlands. The Atlantic tides going up the Potomac beyond Washington, their natural movement is largely sufficient.


Originally a purely hydrologic construction, the Tidal Basin has become the centerpiece of a park dotted with many monuments and a very nice Japanese cherry tree garden, offred to the City of Washington by the City of Tokyo in 1912.


Washington, Lincoln Memorial, statue of President Lincoln

Lincoln Memorial, statue of President Lincoln


Our first visit is at the Lincoln Memorial, a sort of secular temple dedicated to the 16th President.


Inside, facing the opening, a monumental statue of Lincoln on a chair lies under an engraved slogan dedicated to the memory of the savior of the Union during the Civil War. On the left wall, the complete Gettysburg Address is carved in the marble.


Washington, The Mall, Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument, from Lincoln Memorial

The Mall, Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument, from Lincoln Memorial


Lincoln Memorial is raised and can be accessed by stairs almost as wide as the Memorial itself, opening on the Mall.


Marie took the picture above at approximately the place Martin Luther King, Jr. was standing, when he gave his powerful "I have a dream ..." speech, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.  For a moment, we imagine the large expanses of lawn in front of us totally crowded, from the stairs to the Washington Monument, about half a million people.


Let's listen to him :


At the time of the speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. is a 34-year-old pastor, who made a name for himself with his role in the African-American Civil Rights movement.


Not exactly turned on by the address he had nevertheless carefully prepared in anticipation, Martin Luther King, Jr. fully improvises the last third of his speech, the famous "I have a dream ..." part. He quotes, among others, Jefferson, the Constitution, a few well-known Southern spirituals, and, of course, the Bible. In little more than five minutes, his spontaneity grants him a place in history.


Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial


We now cross  the Mall gardens and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and visit Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. This memorial, quite controversial when it was built, is the most recent around the Tidal Basin : it was only inaugurated in October 2011.


It is made of a granite structure representing the Mountain of Despair, split in two, from with the Stone of Hope arises, its front part taking the form of a 30-foot high statue of the pastor.


On both sides of the memorial are quotes of many of the pastor's speeches in various countries.


We remember that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, in circumstances where controversy and conspiracy theories are in no shortage.


The guide, a white man, describes the Memorial and tells the life of the pastor. Although nothing is perfect, it seems that the United States have made tremendous progress on the path toward integrating their diverse populations.


Let's just keep in mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. never asked anything for himself, and certainly not a Memorial.


Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial


A little further is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Inaugurated in 1997 by President Clinton, it is the largest of the Tidal Basin. It is made of four open-air "chambers", one for each of the terms of the 32nd President.


The walls of the Memorial illustrate themes dear the the President's heart : the Depression and mass unemployment, the New Deal, the reform of the market economic system, the rise of dictatorships in the 1930s and, of course, WWII. Several fountains in each of the chambers illustrate those themes.


The role of the First Lady, Eleanor, is mentioned. She has been a faultless spouse, publicly faithful, privately much more emancipated. The outspokenness of her speeches, often quite blunt, would at times embarrass the White House. In a way, she was the first real First Lady.


The last statue, on the picture, shows the sick and thinner Roosevelt, exhausted by his task and illness, as he appeared at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, two months before his death. The little dog is Fala, the scottish terrier who went everywhere with the President from 1940 until his death in 1945, and who outlived him until 1952.


Washington, George Mason Memorial

George Mason Memorial


After crossing one of the openings of the Tidal Basin, we reach George Mason Memorial. Not as famous as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, born in 1725 and deceased in 1792, nevertheless played a crucial role in the foundation of the United States and their transformation into a Federal state. In 1776, he is one of the authors of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first real constitution of one of the thirteen newly independent States. Later, as a Delegate of Virginia, he significantly helped draft the Constitution at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, although he finally did not sign it.


As Patrick Henry or Thomas JeffersonGeorge Mason was highly suspicious of a strong Federal state, which he suspected could lead to autocracy and dictatorship. He therefore strongly advocated for the inclusion in the Federal Constitution of specific rights for States and their populations. These additions became the first 10 Amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights.


The First Amendment, which defines freedom of expression and speech and religious freedom, is often invoked to support freedom of the press and separation of Church and State.


The Second Amendment defines the right of citizens to carry and use arms to organize militia, in order to defend themselves and their property. Contrary to what is often believed, the Second Amendment is anything but a universal licence to carry arms anywhere at anytime and for individual self-defense. More recent interpretations, often taken out of the original historical context, at times not exempt of political afterthoughts, erroneously lead to this perception.


The Fifth Amendment's original intent is to protect the citizen against government abuse of authority. It defines what a fair course of justice should be, including the right to equal protection, the right against self-incrimination and the right to be tried only once for a given offense. In this respect, it is often invoked in trials against journalists, to help them protect their sources. It is also the constitutional basis of the famous "You have the right to remain silent ..." that can be heard during an arrest in every decent US crime TV series, and was enshrined into law by the famous Miranda Rights.


As we can see, George Mason's contribution largely transcends his time, and its consequences still widely affect us. Such a character really deserved a memorial along the the Tidal Basin.


Washington, Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial


Proceeding around the Tidal Basin, we now visit the Jefferson Memorial. We have already told a lot about his life and his legacy when we visited his estate at Monticello. Let us simply remember this quote of the great man, excerpted from the Declaration of Independence :

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


And this one :

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."


Those two quotes are engraved in marble inside the Memorial, and they truly illustrate Jefferson's universal genius. A contemporary mind may deplore that he did not perceive earlier the contradiction between slavery, which he practiced at Monticello, and his ideals of liberty and equality, which he reasserted so many times with so much strength.


It is now the end of the afternoon, we complete our walk around the Tidal Basin by crossing the last gardens planted with Japanese cherry trees.


Then we take the metro again, to the Pentagon.


Arlington, Pentagon and 9/11 Memorial

Pentagon and 9/11 Memorial


Although most official buildings in the Capital are more or less accessible, the Pentagon is tightly secured. Tourists are carefully kept at bay, it is theoretically prohibited to take pictures, and many security stations dot the perimeter. Let's face it, between my first visit and now, there were the infamous 9/11 attacks, which took 184 lives just on this site.


In theory, it is possible to visit the Pentagon, but reservations have to be made at least 14 days in advance.


Built between 1941 and 1943, the Pentagon is the seat of the five branches of the United States Armed Forces :



The Pentagon is a city by itself. Its 23,000 employees can eat in 24 restaurants, relieve themselves in 284 toilets, and park their cars in 16 parking lots. The building has enough phone and computer cabling to circle the Earth 4 1/2 times.


According to its own website, the Pentagon welcomes 106,000 visitors per year, which is a little under 300 a day. For a building of such fame, status and historical meaning, that is very few.


We find solace in visiting the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, at some distance from the main building. The names and dates of birth of all 184 victims are engraved. The youngest one was three years old.


We then take the metro again, then the bus, back to Alexandria. We have dinner at Subway's, just across the street from our hotel.


Finally, the weather has kept fair all day long. We have walked 7 miles.

LeftArrow UpArrow RightArrow TopArrow