Last Monday at around midnight I was sitting on the top steps at the Lincoln Memorial. I had gone and seen the movie Dunkirk at the iMax theater in Georgetown and then walked the mile or so to the National Mall. I love it at that time of night because it’s so quiet and peaceful. Without the crowds, it’s a rare opportunity for deep reflection in one this country’s most sacred places.
I sat down on the steps and, a few moments later, a woman sat down a couple yards to my left. I looked over at her and we shared a smile. Not a grin but one of those soft, knowing looks. Aren’t we lucky to be here, right now, in this place.
I turned back and looked across the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument. I felt small and large at the same time. Small to be such an insignificant person in the greatness of time and place, a person sitting literally at the feet of giants. Large to be connected to so many others; to the women to my left, to the others milling about, to Lincoln and Washington and everyone who has worked, in their own way, right and wrong, to make America what it is today.
I spent some time thinking about Dunkirk. When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them. The movie is astounding – Christopher Nolan is a genius – and gave me new appreciation for an historic event I thought I knew.
Dunkirk was a defeat. The British fled mainland Europe as Hitler’s German forces swarmed through France, the opposite of what happened a generation earlier where British forces were pivotal in shoring up the left flank and halting the German advance on Paris. After they left, the British sunk the French fleet – killing over a thousand French sailors in the process – to keep the ships from being used against them. These were not good times.
Yet, Dunkirk was such a hopeful movie. At its core, it is a story of small people and the incredible difference they can make in the lives of others. We honor Lincoln and Washington and the British celebrate Churchill and Montgomery but, as Dunkirk reveals, it is regular troops – perhaps inspired by Queen and Country or maybe just a sense of moral connection to those around them – that have always mattered most.
The day before my late night visit I had gone with my family to Arlington National Cemetery. I hadn’t been there for nearly two decades and some important things had changed. Arlington House – a monument to General Robert E. Lee – now had some significant interpretative exhibits on the forced role of African slaves in building and maintaining the structure and grounds. We encountered additions to the dialogue of this nature everywhere we went throughout our week in Washington DC—a change that, as a parent of smart and curious daughters, I fully welcomed.
We walked almost the entire cemetery. As we did, it occurred to me how our view of ourselves has changed over time. In the older parts of the cemetery, our “blue blood” heritage was visible in the headstones; the markers of the privileged and affluent were larger and more ornate than the others. As we got closer to modern times, the markers became more standardized in the numbingly ordered way we picture military cemeteries. Death is an experience shared by all classes of society.
There are exceptions, however. The Kennedy family – President John F. Kennedy, his wife and two of his children along with his brothers Robert and Edward – have a special place of reverence and reflection in Arlington. We could demand historical focus on their many human flaws – from their bootlegging endowment to a Chappaquiddick bridge – or we can, in the way societies have long honored their dead, big and small, have a generous spirit towards their many positive attributes in the hopes that they will inspire us to greatness. I’m happy we have chosen the latter.
One part of Arlington Cemetery has the Confederate Monument surrounded by the graves of many soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War. It was authorized in 1906 and completed under President Wilson in 1914. As I looked at it, it occurred to me how difficult it must have been for many to accept, but how important if must have been for others to see it built.
Again, it gets back to the regular troops, the ones who make the difference. I’m from Minnesota and served in the Army National Guard. I’ve always had a great deal of pride over the 1st Minnesotan, which turned the tide of the battle, and subsequently the entire war, in a suicidal charge at Gettysburg. I have this pride even though I know none of them. I’ve tasted none of their pain or suffering. Felt none of their fear or relief.
As I stood there, my generous self envisioned thousands of blue and grey troops coming together at Arlington in 1914 to honor those who died in the struggle, people the attendees would have known first hand. I can imagine the stubborn pride on some, the shaky hand extended by others, the shared smile between yet others. Aren’t we lucky to be here, right now, in this place.
Every president, including President Obama, has sent a wreath to the Confederate Monument on Memorial Day. I choose to interpret that generously as well.
My country, right or wrong. It’s a statement often used to invoke extreme patriotism, but I don’t understand that interpretation.
My country, right, is a blind and dangerous sentiment that the nation can do no wrong That the founding fathers were everything great we were taught in history, end of statement. That it was okay to write “All men are created equal” when we didn’t mean all men, let alone women. That we had a good enough reason for the internment of Japanese during World War II. Or many Muslims after 9/11.
My country, wrong, however, is just as blind. And just as dangerous. That the founding fathers were evil, our republic the fruits of a poison tree, because their views and actions were not as enlightened as today’s most enlightened believe themselves to be. That the most derisive interpretation must be applied to every statue or image of a historical figure. That no amount of light in the world can overcome the dark, even though each of us struggles with both.
My country, right and wrong. For me, that is a patriotic position. It is also a human position. America, like each of us that comprise it, is a work in progress. I hope the people of the future look back at me and learn from my flaws, but I hope they are generous enough to interpret them with the complexity that I live them.
After spending some time standing on the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, I walked down past the Washington Monument and caught a cab back to my hotel. At some point during the next few hours, someone vandalized the Lincoln Memorial just a few feet from where I had sat, a sharp rebuke to the peace and connectedness I felt in that space. The motivation of the vandal wasn’t clear, but it was done in the context of the horrible events in Charlottesville and a nationwide push to remove images, monuments and references deemed offensive by many.
This all makes me sad. I’m not alone.
Later during the week, my family and I visited the monuments surrounding the Tidal Basin. Thomas Jefferson is always my favorite and it was beautiful to read his words with my daughters. “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” I have also so sworn.
We wound our way through the FDR memorial and I was able to talk to my daughters about my grandfather, his growing up in the Great Depression and his service in the Marines during World War II. We were able to talk about polio and their grandfather, who was one of the last people to contract it before the vaccine. I hate war. The words are so powerful.
Then we came to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, one that my daughter had studied extensively in school and was fully prepared to discuss. I don’t feel entitled to quote him to my own ends, so I will simply share what stuck with me this time through, with my daughters and the events of our time as a backdrop.
In the times we face, many of us feel powerless. I know that I do. Yet I also know, reinforced after a week in our nation’s capital, that the tide will not turn based on the will of one good or wicked person. It’s our will. We are the tide. And the way we turn the tide is by talking to each other. And more than talking, listening. With a spirit of generosity.
Aren’t we lucky to be here, right now, in this place?