Then as now, controversy erupted around the issue of Confederate memorialization, and not always in predictable ways. Although objections came from groups that believed Confederate traitors had no place in a national cemetery, opposition also came from groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy that, reluctant to support any gesture they felt appeased the federal government, wanted full control over Confederate graves so they could be used to galvanize sustained interest in Lost Cause mythmaking. Nevertheless, against a tide of controversy, McKinley’s initiative succeeded, and in 1901 the Confederate section was dedicated at Arlington.
Arlington, like our nation, is defined by its contradictions and flaws. I’ve always felt ambivalent about my own space reserved there, granted because of the nature of my combat service in Iraq, where we waged a far-from-popular war. Despite the honor of an Arlington burial and a desire to be close to my friends buried there, I’ve often wondered what peace exists in ground consecrated by the eternal, often violent chapters of our American experiment. When I imagine someone disinterring a grave at Arlington today, I can’t help but imagine a future generation disinterring my grave or that of one of my friends.
It seems the prospect of digging up the dead unsettles most Americans. The legislation introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren to redesignate military bases named after Confederate generals includes a provision that ensures all graves remain undisturbed.