VETERANS DAY 2008
By Nicolaus Mills
It is not easy finding a gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.
I learned that earlier this year when I visited the grave of General George Marshall on the sixtieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan. The media had not thought the anniversary worth mentioning, and that day I was alone in seeking out the general.
But despite knowing the exact locale of Marshall's gravesite--Number 8198, Section 7---I needed more than an hour to find it. What took me so long was not just my poor map reading skills. It was that in looking for Marshall's gravesite, I was forced to acknowledge, in a way I never did as a tourist, that Arlington is an out-of-doors church. It was not possible to move from one grave to another without first reading the inscriptions before me.
Marshall had not made my task of finding him easy. A five star general and Army chief of staff throughout World War II, he outranked everyone buried near him. But his tombstone did not stand out by virtue of its size or the carvings on it. When it came to his accomplishments, there was simply a list of the positions he once held: Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, Secretary of State, President of the American Red Cross, Secretary of Defense. That was it.
The modesty of the gravesite was consistent with the conditions that Marshall, who refused to accept military decorations from the United States during World War II, set down for his funeral. He forbade a funeral service at the National Cathedral and ruled out lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. He wanted no eulogy. He insisted that his internment be private, and he drew up a short list of honorary pallbearers that included his wartime and postwar orderlies but was casual about the famous---General Bedell Smith "if he is in town," Marshall wrote in the instructions he left behind in 1956.
I doubt that Marshall would have wanted a stranger like me near tears at his gravesite, and I did my best to comply with his wishes. But as I stood there, I also imagined how often Marshall, who spent his final years in Virginia, must have thought about Arlington and its acres of dead.
In 1953 there was much comment about the paradox of a professional soldier like him receiving the Nobel Prize. "I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others," Marshall had remarked in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones."
Marshall was confessing his own feelings about the price of being Army chief of staff and secretary of defense, but in the wake of this year's Veterans Day, what is so painful about Marshall's words is that they seem part of a bygone era in which, when it came to waging war, the country believed "we are all in this together" and refused to limit sacrifice to those on the battlefield.
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."