Regardless of one's feelings about the American Experiment, walking around the cemetery is both interesting and even a little moving. There are some giants buried in there. That isn't necessarily a compliment but men that in their day shook the world so to speak.
It's a place of 'heroes', people set apart and revered by the nation. As you're walking around you're looking out over the Potomac. From Lee's house at the summit the view is very impressive. The National Mall lies before you, all the monuments and all the symbolism that is Washington. Depending on the wind, the planes are taking off every couple of minutes just adding an air of busyness and frenzy which seems at odds with the tranquility of the cemetery. Often it doesn't feel very tranquil but there are places you can go to get away from the crowds.
Heroes... now that's a subjective term if there ever was one. It's a localised term for the most part. It's a term defined within a specific people group. How is the group defined, by ideas or by relations or both?
Are heroes defined by ideals or are they heroes because they defended the tribe? Can heroes betray ideals in order to defend the tribe?
Just below Lee's house lies the Kennedy plot. Is John F Kennedy a hero? He certainly was to some and yet he was a traitor to others. Some uphold him for his ideals, many on the Left, many sceptical about the Cold War and many in the African-American community.
Of course his legacy on these points is rather mixed. It would seem he changed course over his 1000 days. He campaigned against Nixon and Eisenhower by charging them with being too soft on Communism, allowing a missile gap to develop etc... When he took office he was party to numerous planned coups and machinations and I'm not referring to Bay of Pigs which he inherited. The Brothers Kennedy were eager Cold Warriors, at least at the beginning.
After the Missile Crisis he seemed to change, tried to reach out to the USSR, signed the atmospheric test ban and his speech at American University seemed to contradict and countermand the Kennedy who took office just two and half years earlier.
Was he a moral example? Certainly not when it comes to his Catholicism, marriage or what we might call clean living. He wasn't honest with the public about his various illnesses. He was a serial adulterer and most likely a drug user.
While in the end he tried to push Civil Rights initially he and his brother were somewhat opposed to the notion and rather irritated with ML King's exposure of American racism and immorality. It was providing fodder for Soviet propaganda and stirring domestic dissent.
In the end Kennedy is a complicated figure and yet to many on the Right he was an appeaser. This played into a narrative concerning his father and his role as UK ambassador during the Munich episode. To many he was dangerously incompetent and lacked the fortitude to stand up to the Communist threat. They felt he betrayed the men at the Bay of Pigs, others knew of his moral corruption and he could never escape the organised crime connections of his father and the rumours surrounding Illinois and the 1960 election.
For many of them Camelot was a fraud and I'm sure it offends not a few that he's buried in Arlington, the only president besides Taft located further down the hill.
For others he's not so much a hero but an iconic and even romantic figure. He was president at a time of transition, an era of tumultuous events and his untimely death was shocking and upsetting, the first in a line of questionable assassinations that would plague the decade.
So was he a hero? It's not so easy to answer. As a Christian I can categorically say 'no', and yet perhaps on another level I can be quite thankful he was president in October 1962 instead of someone like Richard Nixon. Of course the argument against this is that the Missile Crisis would have never happened if Nixon had been president in April of 1961.
But it's not so easy. Had Cuba fallen, in all likelihood the inevitable Berlin Crisis would have been exacerbated. Had the Bay of Pigs never happened, then it's also possible the Berlin Wall might not have been built. It's hard if not impossible to say. The idea that if Cuba had fallen, then the Berlin Crisis would have been avoided, is an exercise in dubious speculation.
Nearby is the grave of his brother Robert, another fascinating figure to be sure. I've always been captivated by his battles with Hoover, Hoffa and organised crime and the conflicts it caused with his father. Despite the fact that he too was not a particularly moral person, he was complicated. His actions after November 1963 are also interesting, there's a public Bobby and a private one. The private Bobby is devastated and on a mission to solve the crime of the century by recovering the presidency. The dynamics with Lyndon Johnson are at play as they hate each other and each tries to manipulate Jacqueline Kennedy. Though Robert Kennedy officially did not dispute the Warren Report nor did he aid Jim Garrison's investigation, in private he clearly believed his brother had been killed by a conspiracy of domestic forces surrounding the CIA, the Mafia and the exiled Cuban community.
The Senate was but a stepping stone to the tumultuous year of 1968. Robert Kennedy was not quite the Anti-Vietnam figure he's made out to be but at the same time in his final days he seemed to be changing and moving ever toward the Left. I'm sure he was bitter that LBJ ended up with the Civil Rights legacy, one that he believed rightly belonged to the Kennedys.
His death is also rather mysterious and cryptic and the source of endless speculation. Was he a hero? His story is a great 'might-have-been'. He alone could have united the Anti-war, African-American, Latino, Labor and Democratic Party factions. The chaos of the Chicago Convention in August would have probably been averted if Robert Kennedy had received the nomination. And of course every historian wonders what would have happened if it had been Kennedy v. Nixon once more in 1968. Robert's death undoubtedly paved the way to Nixon's victory.
And then a few feet further we come to the grave of Ted Kennedy. While many would frown on JFK and RFK being buried in Arlington I'm sure many are livid that Edward 'Ted' Kennedy has been buried there. He did a brief stint in the military but his father kept him from going to Korea. His boldest move was his run for president. In light of what happened to his brothers that took some courage but he was already ruined by the rumours surrounding Chappaquiddick in 1969. The country was moving in a different direction by 1976 and 1980. The Kennedy era had past, the Reagan revolution was on the horizon. He's famous for his term in the Senate and the many fights and struggles he pursued while holding that office. He died just before Obama passed the ACA and one has to wonder if Ted Kennedy would have approved. I don't think the Heritage Foundation plan was what he had in mind but Ted Kennedy's relationship to the ACA is another complicated question.
Just past Ted is Joe Kennedy the older brother of John, Robert and Ted that died in World War II. He's another 'what if' to contemplate. He was the one pegged by the father Joe Kennedy Sr. to lead the family into politics. Instead he perished in the sea off Suffolk. I suppose by the standards of the culture he was at the very least a war hero, not for deeds but for losing his life.
Nearby one comes to the grave of Robert McNamara. Was he a hero? You'll find very few on either side of the political spectrum who think so. In fact he's one of the most despised men in modern American history. And yet if you watch 'The Fog of War' you get some insight into his perspective. I don't think he's off the hook by any long shot but, it's clear the situation was complicated. There were misunderstandings on all sides. In fact that's one of the most fascinating aspects of the Cold War... the misunderstandings and everything that ensued as a result. One thing is clear, he was unrepentant for being one of the chief architects of a war that led to millions of deaths and one that generated subsequent and deadly wars including a genocide. Oddly, from his perspective (and others) he was trying to curtail the military and prevent a larger war. Imperial and military calculus can get pretty foggy indeed.
As a quick aside I'll simply mention that if you want to understand the magnitude of possible misunderstanding read 'A Spy Among Friends' a book about Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five. American Counter-Intelligence guru James Angleton is mentioned quite a bit in the book. As a leader in counter-intelligence his job was to spy on the spies, and try to figure out what the other side was thinking and planning. Aside from driving himself to the point of paranoid delusion he was frightfully wrong on many points and about many people... Philby being one of the primary examples.
To the Right wing McNamara represents a kind of bureaucratic timidity and poor leadership, an unwillingness to truly take on the Soviets. His commitment to containment and Mutually Assured Destruction were unacceptable to the philosophical school that would ultimately lead to Ronald Reagan. Since the USSR collapsed shortly after Reagan's term the apologists for 'Rollback' feel vindicated. In reality Reagan was more a Mr. Magoo figure than a conquering Caesar, but that's for another discussion, perhaps after a visit to Simi Valley.
To the Left-wing McNamara's a warmonger, a disciple of Curtis LeMay, an Eichmann-like bureaucrat that focused on statistics instead of lives and lost sight of what the United States was doing. And then in the wake of the death and destruction unleashed on Indochina it was men like McNamara that were truculent and defiant, refusing to acknowledge error let alone culpability.
McNamara's belligerence was rooted in the fact that you weren't there and you don't understand what it was like to operate under the threat of nuclear war.
While McNamara's record is subject to question on another level doesn't he represent the Establishment? He was a WWII veteran in logistics. And it might be added the logistics were new. It was a wholly new way of fighting war that a lot of leaders including men like Douglas MacArthur had a hard time grasping. After the war he headed the Ford Motor Company which in the post-war years was a much bigger deal than it is now. After his time as Secretary of Defense he headed the World Bank making him a unique figure that traversed the centres of corporate, political, financial and military power.
Down the hill we come to the grave of General Lyman Lemnitzer, former head of the Joint Chiefs and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. In the late 1990s it was revealed that Lemnitzer was behind the proposed Operation Northwoods dating back to the early 1960s. The Joint-Chiefs suggested that the US stage false-flag operations on US soil involving terroristic attacks on US citizens. These would be blamed on Cuba and help provide a justification for a US invasion.
Apparently McNamara and Kennedy were appalled and shut down the operation. The fact that it was even suggested is rather telling and while the Golden Age of the Imperial Presidency came to end in the mid-1970s, it's all too clear that figures such as Rumsfeld and Cheney devoted themselves to a reinstatement of the Imperial Presidency/Unitary Executive and with it the removal of all restraints on the Pentagon and CIA. Were some of the old ideas like Northwoods revived? Just how Machiavellian were the new proponents of the Unitary Executive?
Is Lemnitzer a hero? Some would call him a traitor and it would therefore be a disgrace that he's buried in Arlington. On the other hand, there are those that believe the Soviet menace was so great and represented such an existential threat to the US system that any means available or possible were fair game. You could effectively violate the principles of your system in order to save it. And if that meant lying to your people, destroying their rights and even killing them... well, these things were permissible, maybe even 'right' considering the nature of the threat.
One is reminded of Eisenhower's farewell speech. He had helped to create the new Military-Industrial Complex and viewed it as a necessary development but he also knew, and warned that it would fundamentally change the American system and society. Eisenhower has never struck me as particularly brilliant but his speech is profound and history has vindicated him.
Lemnitzer went on to serve on the Rockefeller Commission. This was during the Post-Watergate period when all the books were being opened so to speak. While the Church Committee genuinely was trying to probe into secret matters I'm not sure the same can be said with some of the other committees and commissions.
Yes, the Rockefeller Commission revealed to the public the existence of MK-ULTRA the massive CIA mind control programme but I tend to view the Commission's role in a different light. Richard Helms read the writing on the wall with the Watergate scandal and apparently destroyed a lot of the materials related to the programme. The Rockefeller Commission functioned (to my mind) more in the realm of mitigation and damage control. By acknowledging the existence of the project it was able to control the narrative.
The revelations were terrible but probably very suppressed and limited. Only one person (Frank Olson) was said to have died as a result but even the story concerning Olson is pretty questionable. I think Lemnitzer and the Commission muddied waters and in some cases all but whitewashed the truth.
When we think of figures like Lemnitzer and the revelations of the government activities in the 1950s and 1960s we are also forced to reckon with operations like Northwoods and Mockingbird.
I suppose some will say these things are all elements of the past, dark but now obsolete chapters of Cold War history.
Again, we must ask, did these operations ever go away? When we consider the way in which the Reagan administration revived the same tome of covert operations and behind the scenes deals it's clear the same players were still at work but had gone even deeper into the covert world. They had learned how to operate in a realm in which there would be virtually no contact with Congress. Yes, they were caught in the case of Iran-Contra, which was huge, but there are so many other stories and whistleblown chapters that never came to 'official' light.
We think of the TIA programme instigated by Bush and to be run by (of all people) John Poindexter. The programme was scrapped because of bad press but just a few years later we learned that it had survived. It had simply morphed and been parceled out into different bureaucracies but all the elements were still there.
Mockingbird was the CIA programme to influence the media and to develop assets within its world. They wanted to shape the news and influence events. The media would collaborate in its reporting with the aims and goals of the US government and its policies.
Obviously there were cases in which this fell apart. Scandals came out, and some stories were not able to be stopped. We think primarily of Watergate itself and there are many different opinions about what happened there. Yet, it is an established fact that the government has been and was quite eager to manipulate the 'free press' in order to serve its larger agenda. When we consider the fact that Joint-Chiefs were ready to terrorise American citizens, execute false-flag operations and then we have a media that in many cases is manipulated and controlled by the same Intelligence establishment... well, that's something to consider isn't it?
I know the media is largely corporate owned and yet once one starts to dig into intelligence connections to the corporate world everything starts to get pretty hazy and it's not hard to see how some powerful players can really shape social perceptions. It's sloppy, and I doubt it's micromanaged and certainly there are plenty of reporters and stories that make it under the radar so to speak but the fact that these things have occurred and may still be occurring makes one question the whole nature of the system itself.
Are these people, men like Lemnitzer heroes because they're working to save the American project? They will trample its laws, principles, lie and cheat its people... even kill them if need be in order to maintain it.
Is that the kind of system that's worth maintaining? Serving?
Are these people heroes? Obviously from a Christian perspective they're not but I think even a lost secular American would have to question it.
Is the nation itself indispensible so that whatever saves it and promotes it power becomes moral? Is that not the rankest form of idolatry?
Is America like the Vietnamese villages men like McNamara and Lemnitzer knew all too well, the ones that had to be destroyed in order to save them? As many Americans watched this on the news they began to wonder if the US policy wasn't one of madness and ultimately self-destructive.
Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad...
Isn't this the Babel Judgment at work? As men build their Babels they fall under judgment and destroy themselves in the end. I guess we can be thankful for that. The tendency for empires to self-destruct is undoubtedly one of the most gracious aspects of Common Grace.
Are these men in their zeal for the American system actually helping to destroy it? I think a case could be made.
Are they heroes? Maybe they're just fools. As you walk Arlington cemetery and encounter so many famous names and you think about their struggles and the world in which they lived... what would they think now? In the final judgment do lost people get to learn their folly? They're judged to be sure and suffer but do they get to see the big picture, what they missed and what their deeds led to? I don't know but it's striking to me to see the graves of these giants and to realise in the end they're just bones and dust, lost people who in the end find themselves in the same place that a beggar or a nobody like me ends up. Humanly speaking the grave awaits, but in terms of eternity the kingdom they sought to build is naught more than dust and ashes, a wasteland of sorrow.
And then we consider Arlington itself. Is it not a great piece of propaganda? Is it not a great exercise in psychological manipulation? It is the ground and resting place of heroes, but what does that mean?
Doesn't Arlington and so much of the symbolism of Washington DC forbid us to ask that question? Isn't the imagery declaring itself as authoritative and it seems designed to awe us and silence us, shut down our critical and moral faculties that would weigh these things?
The fact that the cemetery was started by appropriating the grounds around the Lee mansion was itself an act of psychological warfare, manipulation and punishment. It's fitting and in keeping with the whole manipulated and manufactured tale that is America.