“Mr. Secretary of War and ladies and gentlemen,” the President began, “we are met here today to pay the impersonal tribute.” The speaker was Warren G. Harding, the occasion Veterans Day 1921, and the place Arlington National Cemetery. A crowd of citizens and foreign dignitaries had gathered to dedicate the final resting place of an unknown American soldier, fallen on the Western Front just a few years before. One word of that speech continues to resonate: impersonal .
The rest of Harding’s remarks fell quickly (and deservedly) into obscurity. But the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became a national shrine, its sacred aura glowing only brighter over the succeeding decades, as three more bodies were added near the white marble box: one for World War II, one for Korea, and one for Vietnam. Careful precautions were taken to ensure that the soldiers remained perfectly anonymous, even as far as date and place of death. (Choosing a World War II honorée required an elaborate shell game involving thirteen bodies in identical coffins from the European and Pacific theaters.)
Today, when I join the throng of visitors kept at a respectful distance by barriers and riflebearing honor guards, I try to think of lofty—and impersonal —things: honor, courage, patriotism. But instead I find myself squinting at the inscrutable stone and wondering: Who were they? Where were they born? How did they die? Were they eager volunteers or unwilling draftees? Sergeant Yorks or Captain Yossarians?
As Americans have learned once again of late, war—or any catastrophe that claims thousands of victims—is not impersonal. It is an accumulation of individual tragedies, of particular lives obliterated, leaving holes of jagged and specific shape. The blank whiteness of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier does not commemorate history so much as deliberately efface it. The dull, mechanized slaughter of World War I inspired a dull, mechanized monument, a tribute less to courage than to blind obedience.
Four years ago the body of the unknown Vietnam War casualty was removed from the tomb, and DNA analysis revealed his identity: Michael Blassie, an airman shot down near An Loc in 1972. Blassie was restored, if not to life, at least to personhood—the least his country could do.
At the turn of the last century, you could purchase one from a mail-order catalogue for $1,000 or so, choosing among a few standard patterns: the Soldier at Parade Rest, the Obelisk, the Standard-Bearer. They were cast in bronze by the W. H. Mullins Company of Salem, Ohio, hewn from granite by Batterson & Canfield of Hartford. They still stand at crossroads and on village greens, barely noticed and sometimes even reviled. “Blunders of art and bad taste,” one historian called them.
But when you stop to look at one of the hundreds of local Civil War memorials scattered across America, it’s their customized details that count: names and dates and words of tribute that, read closely, tell their own eloquent war stories. The names on the one in the old Spanish plaza of St. Augustine, Florida—Alfonzo Lopez, Eusebio Pacetti, Gaspar Carreras—speak of a Confederacy far more complicated than the homogeneous Old South of legend. On many monuments in the North the parenthetical designation “Col’d” after a soldier’s name reminds us that even in death, all heroes were not equal.
A few of these local monuments are true works of genius. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, on the Boston Common, is America’s own version of the Parthenon frieze, a procession of black citizen-soldiers, their noble faces alight both with individuality of character (Saint-Gaudens modeled them from life) and a larger, allegorical purpose.
Yet even the humblest, too, have the expressive power of American folk art. In Chestertown, Maryland, a place with its loyalties divided between North and South, a plain granite slab stands in the town’s memorial plaza. It was erected in 1917, when the surviving veterans were white-bearded and weary, ready to forgive old wounds. The north-facing side of the slab bears a list of local men who died for the Union; the southern one, a roughly equal list of dead Confederates. An inscription on the latter side reads:
And on the opposite, northern face: