Robert Pimm

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The Americans: Avenue of the Heroes

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In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States.

What did I learn about the US of 1979, and what does that tell us about America today?  What about me?  How have I changed, and should I seek to reconnect with that carefree 21 year-old?

Find out on my page The Americans, where I have gathered together several episodes of my US odyssey.  Enjoy the ride.

The changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, July 1979

Here is my account of a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. on 6 July 1979.

Avenue of the Heroes

I walked towards the bridge.

Two metal statues flanked the road: huge, muscular, nude, bearded men on huge, muscular horses, each accompanied by a naked woman.

The women were both on foot.

One of the men clutched a child.  Looking at pictures now, I am reminded of the statue of a Soviet soldier unveiled at Treptow, in Berlin, in 1949.

Also sculpted in metal on a titanic scale, the Soviet hero holds a child in one hand and an improbably large sword in the other.

The children which the men in Berlin and Washington are holding look eerily similar.  

Super-sized statues rarely make great art.  These ones in Washington, D.C., a cross between the Epstein bas reliefs on the London Underground headquarters and the faux-antique stone sculptures at the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin, were no exception.

I walked on.

I started to sweat.

The bridge was shade-free, and longer than I had expected.

Maybe that was why I was the only person walking across.

On each side, the waters of the Potomac were calm.  But the statues had unsettled me.

Weren’t they a bit, well, Soviet?

One of the themes of my 1979 journey was how many people distrusted the federal government in Washington.  The giant, ugly statues were not a great advertisement for the nation’s capital.

At the other end of the bridge, I looked for the “Avenue of the Heroes”, which according to my map would take me into the heart of the Arlington National Cemetery.

I couldn’t find it.

Instead, as I crossed from the District of Columbia into Virginia, I found myself tramping along Memorial Avenue.

When did they change the name?  And why?

Days later, catching up on my diary on Route 11 south out of Greenville, North Carolina, I wrote: Arlington National Cemetery – on my 1964 map the road there was called “Avenue of the Heroes” but this is now changed to “Memorial Drive” – pretty wet, huh?  America’s general lack of zip and loss of self-confidence since Vietnam have been huge. Someone who gave me a lift here said, ‘Vietnam was just another big decision for America, and they were wrong. Now they’re afraid to make any decisions about anything.’

Seems true to me, I concluded, with 21-year-old certainty.

This was before I had watched Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech a couple of weeks later.

It was also before I had seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which when built in 1982 was deemed so sombre that pressure built up for a figurative statue, The Three Servicemen, to be added.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, April 1990

Did the renaming of the Avenue of the Heroes really have anything to do with a loss of collective confidence after Vietnam?

Or did someone question the degree to which it was right to speak, in the English phrase, of “The Glorious Dead”?

What makes a dead soldier a hero?

The first official US military death in Vietnam, for example, in 1956, was a US Air Force Technical Sergeant who was murdered by another USAF airman.

I once saw a First World War memorial in Berlin which referred to “Our heroes”.  It was accompanied by a modern explanatory text discussing whether those commemorated were heroes, victims or even murderers.

It is an awkward balance between commemorating, and honouring, the dead, and glorifying their actions.

Often, the winning side is keener on the glorifying aspect.

I climbed the hill into the Arlington National Cemetery.  Despite the heat, the trees, grass and dignified ranks of plain white tombstones calmed me.

What is the focal point of a cemetery?

I decided to try and find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Before leaving Manchester to hitch-hike to Heathrow Airport in London a few days earlier, I had ransacked the house for maps.

These days, navigating with a paper map when you have a plan of the whole world in your pocket with your exact position marked on it at all times feels eccentric, verging on foolhardy.

In 1979, a map was a thing of value.  Something you bought when you visited a city, then hoarded in case you might one day visit again.

My father had visited Washington, D.C. in 1964; I borrowed his map for my trip fifteen years later.  After I had visited D.C. I carried it with me around a further twenty-one states and gave it back to my father when I returned to Manchester.

I do not know if that 1964 map still exists.

Now, paper maps are so cheap, they can barely even give them away in hotels.  You toss them when you leave the city.

I had been browsing my map at the Lincoln Memorial when I noticed the Arlington National Cemetery.  You couldn’t miss it: one of those huge, scantily populated features – like Roosevelt Island in New York – which blazed so enticingly from the map I could not resist exploring it.

The route to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier wound past thousands of gravestones inscribed with the victims of many wars.  These simple, standardised memorials, dignifying the dead with a name but in most respects identical, were similar to the graves of the World War 1 cemeteries on the Western Front, many in France and Belgium.

Looking around, I felt the kind of worthy melancholy I have felt in many military cemeteries, mostly run by the wonderful Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from Gallipoli to Klagenfurt to Cambridge.

I reached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery to find the Changing of the Guard was about to take place.

According to Wikipedia, soldiers guarding the Tomb do not wear rank insignia in order not to outrank the “Unknowns”, whatever their ranks may have been.  The memorial contains Unknowns from different wars; but the designation of a “Vietnam Unknown” proved difficult as DNA testing led the individual being identified.

Arlington National Cemetery was founded at the time of the American Civil War.  Reasons for choosing the site included the view; and the fact that the high ground would not be subject to flooding, which could unearth the graves.  It houses around 400,000 dead.

The cemetery has been expanded several times following large numbers of veterans wishing to be buried there from continuing wars.  Plans are in hand for further expansion.

Will Arlington ever be like the magnificent Central Cemetery of Vienna, where the 2.3 million dead outnumber the living population of the city by two to one?

I wonder.

When I watched the changing of the guard, I witnessed one of the soldiers telling someone to show respect by putting his t-shirt back on.

After the ceremony was over, I consulted my 1964 map again. The Headquarters of the US Department of Defence, also known as the Pentagon, was nearby.

In fact, the Pentagon was built in 1941-43 almost in the shade of the vast military cemetery.

Could any irony have been intended?

Surely, not.

I set off to walk there.

P.S.  If you enjoy fresh, original writing, you can friend me on Facebook or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see blue “click here” button).  You can explore the more than 200 blogs on this site via my five pleasure paths.

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