Part memoir and part history, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton’s Sacred Duty recounts in vivid detail the stories of the men and women who make up Arlington’s military detachment—”The Old Guard.” Those military units comprise America’s oldest regiment (established in 1784), which includes the Revolutionary-garbed Fife and Drum Corps and Continental Color Guard, the skilled rifle-handling Drill Team, and—the elite of the elite—the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who have stood guard at their post for every minute of every day since 1937.
Mostly however, the Old Guard comprises the highly trained platoons who honor our military veterans through dignified funerals conducted with deep respect and exacting attention to military precision—including 21-gun-salute “full honors” for senior officers and Medal of Honor winners.
Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, presided over more than 400 such funerals during his time in the Old Guard, commemorating, as he describes it, “our nation’s fallen, its warriors, their families, and our common heritage of freedom for which they sacrificed.” After graduating from Harvard Law School, he enlisted in the Army in 2005. To the surprise of his recruiting officer, he declined to serve in the JAG Corps and instead requested command of an infantry platoon. In between combat tours in Iraq and then Afghanistan (where he earned the Bronze Star) Captain Cotton served at Arlington in 2007 and 2008. Though the book includes several of Cotton’s personal recollections, it is virtually free of autobiography and self-promotion—a rare modesty for a U.S. Senator.
I visited the cemetery—for perhaps the fifth or sixth time—a few days ago, to connect with some of what I had read in the book, and get in the right frame of mind to write about it. As usual, one could see couples or small groups walking slowly along the paths. Occasionally one notices someone who has come to visit a specific gravesite. But most people, including the large groups of students typical this time of year, congregated near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The tomb is a large and impressive structure—and the changing of the guard is stirring to witness. Moreover, for those who don’t have a relative or loved one buried at Arlington, the tomb provides a connection that can appeal to every American.
“We venerate the Unknowns,” Cotton writes, “not merely as representatives of the unknown dead from four wars, but as heroes who embody the courage and sacrifice of all our war dead, from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
I think there is another reason as well: people need something to gravitate toward. The cemetery, certainly on foot, seems vast—walking among the hundreds of thousands of individuals headstones easily can become overwhelming. One of the virtues of Sacred Duty is that it helps you get your bearings, to place the enormousness, the solemnity, and the ritual into perspective.
Cotton wisely avoids ambitious attempts at poetry; to capture the full meaning of Arlington would require a Shakespeare. Instead, he allows the historical facts, and especially the individual stories of both the living and the dead, to speak for themselves. From Private William Christman, the first soldier buried at Arlington in 1864, to Sergeant Jeff Dickerson—who took his emotional “last walk” as a tomb sentinel in March of 2018—the book is full of names, memories, and personal details that bring the heroes and guardians of Arlington into focus.
Sacrifice is a theme that naturally runs through the book, and one which has special importance in America. (“Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard,” one visiting foreign dignitary told the tomb guards. “You take better care of your dead than we do our living.”)
Since time immemorial soldiers have fought for home and hearth. That is no less true of America’s warriors. But what it means to defend this home—what it means to be an American soldier—has an extra meaning. Abraham Lincoln, in his eulogy of the great Senator Henry Clay, said, “He loved his county partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”
Living in a free country takes work. It even takes sacrifice—although from most of us the sacrifice is a far lesser one than that paid by those buried at Arlington. Nevertheless, there are virtues necessary for free government that cannot be ignored. Otherwise, self-government simply cannot work.
“Our founding principles are noble and just,” Cotton writes. “Our ancestors fought for those principles, and we ought to be ready to fight for them, too.” Citizens must fight for them, as well. But in a different way.
Republican citizenship means the willingness to subordinate our own narrow self-interest and policy preferences for the sake the common good. This is the essence of deliberative politics, where figurative battles take the place of literal ones. Politics, though a pale imitation of martial courage and the ultimate sacrifice, is in one sense incomparably easier than the physical and spiritual exertions needed in war.
But in another sense, it may be more challenging because it requires a permanent re-orientation of the soul. Republican citizenship has to be practiced as a way of life, so that toleration, compromise, and mutual respect become civic habits, and ultimately the foundation of civic friendship.
Our republic is in danger of losing all that has been won—at such immense cost—by those who gave everything, because, in our strident and punitive political climate, we seem no longer to know how to practice those essential virtues. Without them, the larger sacrifices won’t be able to save us. In the end, it is citizens who must be the guardians of “government by the people, for the people, and of the people.”
Without diminishing the need for Spartan virtue—the warrior’s courage and strength—we must remember why Americans fight. War, after all is for the sake of peace. America’s soldiers fight enemies abroad so that all Americans may remain friends at home.
Tom Cotton’s fine book shows us the nobility of those who sacrificed everything, and thus reminds us how small—and yet how necessary—are the sacrifices we must all make as citizens.
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