There are fields beyond. The world there obeys / The living Word; names, numbers do for this. / The grave’s cross, the grave’s grass, the grave’s polished granite...
We sat more than six feet underground, in a room whose windows, if they had existed, would have looked out on dirt, caked hard with grime. There were four of us there, our boss a man we called Chief. Big, his fatigues always on. He felt like a father. He felt like my father. The two others were civilians, like me, older though, but still young. They had been there longer than I, and had the softest chairs, their weight sinking into the heart of them. Our job was to respond to technological problems. I knew little about computers, and still do, even as I sit here now typing into one. That summer I learned that most problems could be solved by turning a thing off and then back on.
Above us was a cemetery. Each day more than a dozen funerals. Sometimes, after walking up the stairs to respond to a problem, I had to walk cautious and careful through a crowd, my hand trying gently to part the way, a hand on one shoulder to say excuse me, a hand on another to say please, and the people moved often as people do, slowly, without acknowledgment, their heads down. One day I took a piss next to a man who was crying. Some days it was not so somber. Other days, it was, when the crowd was large and the men and women barely older than I came dressed sharp and shining, and you knew the body almost in the ground had not long ago been carried off a plane, and that plane not long ago had taken off from another country, and that body not long before its dying was alive and dusty with activity.
I learned soon how to keep my lips tight and my own head down. I learned, too, how to escape the building when I could, to stand in Section 7, between the trees, and watch the long slow symmetry of the buried dead unfold over the hills. I learned that if you placed a uniform on death, you could make it feel beautiful. The soft white marble, carved to smooth precision, the grass cut no less than three inches. And the horses, their rumps rolling side to side as they pulled the caisson along, the steady clack of their hooves, as if they knew what death was better than I did, or better than I ever will. They kept their eyes low and in summer let the flies linger buzzing close to their white fur, refusing to disturb the ceremony with the quick shake of their heads. I learned that a tooth could stand alone as part of a body, as if it weighed the same in death, that some of the dead laying still and quiet below me were forever missing things – an arm, two legs, an identity. And I learned to avoid the sheer heaviness of things, and stopped looking each morning at the list of burials, trying to see how people died, and why.
What is it now, The War? A war now, numbered / as your lives and graves are numbered; that one can lose, / That we have lost...
There are many things I want to say here, but I do not know how. I grew up proud of the father who raised me, and remember fondly the days he would take me to his office at the Pentagon, letting me toddle along beside him through the long corridors of flags and ceremony. I could fit under his desk if I tried. Those were the years I dreamed of being small enough to crawl under the cracks of doors, when everyone’s voice felt like an echo. Loud, resonating, hard to hear. Everything felt too important to understand, like how my father wore a suit during the day and sweatpants at night, when he, my brother, and I cluttered together to eat our dinners in front of a television. Sometimes, at baseball games, I would cry when my father stood to be acknowledged for his service. He is and always was a small man. He was bigger in those moments, and taller, vast and unreachable. I was then and am now and will always be his son, the one who wore his worn uniform from Vietnam for consecutive Halloweens, walking house to house beside my brother in the safety of our neighborhood, the mellowed gold of living room light spilling out into the lawns, the smell those nights always of the charcoal embers in various backyards dying down.
And the senselessness / Our lives had reached from seemed to us the sense / We had reached for...
It takes a lot to be buried today at Arlington. It is in the strange process of both expansion and contraction, both seemingly inevitable. Most whose burials occur in the present moment served in the military in past wars, and stayed in the military until retiring. Often there are widows and widowers of the aforementioned buried with them. Less often, there are those who died on active duty, many interred in Section 60, a flat space of land that under the midday sun glimmers with the unworn marble reflecting spectrally outward. These few, and others, too, receive a full honors funeral, a band that marches down from Fort Myer, the horses pulling the caisson and the flag-draped casket, the trumpet in the distance, and the guns rifling blanks into the air, the smoke from the shots pillowing and rising before disappearing. It is a ceremony so steeped in the cool process of tradition that it becomes beautiful, so beautiful that you forget most things you brought with you that day. Or most things you never chose to acknowledge.
Like how, now, a body is being pulled from a street I will never know the name of in a country I will probably never know. And how that body is nameless to me, unknown. How it could be beneath my feet right now and I would not know the difference. Or how, in war, death is never beautiful. Or how, despite the complex beauty of physics, there can be no grace in the clean shot of a sniper, even when it hits its target and blood explodes flower-like from the concave of a stranger’s chest. I did not think of these things when I stood many late mornings and early afternoons on the outskirts of a burial, watching and listening and feeling the three inch grass cave soft under my feet as I swayed. And I’m scared to speak of these things now. And I might always be.
Your lives are not lived / But, there in mid-air, cease, and do not fall / And are what is not, but that might have been. / And ours are – what they are; and, slowly, end.
It is strange to work in a place where you do not feel as important as the dead who surround you. But computers broke almost every day and there was always need for their fixing. Sometimes the printers that printed burial records or sheets of some austere importance that needed signing, sometimes these broke, too, or ran out of toner. These were simple things with simpler ceremonies. A plug loose. A power switch to flick on and off. A closet full of ink.
In our cramped office we talked mostly of fantasy football and girlfriends and past girlfriends and where we would eat for lunch. I was taught how to take control of someone’s computer remotely to respond to a problem without having to leave my chair. It felt good, that ease, that settling, that little war without casualties. To tell someone on the phone that’s me wiggling your mouse around. Upstairs the mourners filed in and out, but downstairs there was a monotony and a rhythm to that monotony. If I listened hard, I could hear the rifles firing above ground, in the distance, but I soon stopped the listening.
Chief did not tell me stories from the War on Terror, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from his multiple tours. Sometimes I wanted to ask him. The unspeakable, the usual. What was it like to kill a man? But he was big and now never felt like the right time. And I did not want to ruin the walks we took out there, among the graves, to respond to an onsite problem, a security camera that stopped working, or an error in the geospatial mapping of the plots that needed a confirmation from out in the fields. I did not want to ruin those walks, where I took two steps to his one, and walked through the long peripheries and the even longer distance out ahead, where strange tourists forever nameless said thank you for your service and I basked in the afterglow of pride at being by his side.
Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives / alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.
Arlington Cemetery began as a rose garden. I should elaborate there. Arlington Cemetery began as someone else’s rose garden. Of Mary Lee, married to Robert E. Lee. As the Civil War turned bloodier, Union generals began to bury their dead on the rolling slopes of Arlington House, which overlooked Washington, DC, and the Potomac River. With both of the Lees in Richmond, neither saw the house stepped through, turned up and around. Or the way a small rose garden, still there, was divided into sections, to be dug up and made into a small cemetery.
This is the kind of story that warrants a chuckle if you’ve had a few beers, or even, if not. It’s a complex story. It gets at this American history. No one is really harmed anymore in its telling. The rose garden is back. The bodies still below. And over 400,000 more in hills around, under the three inch grass, in perpetual symmetry and near-perfection. The sightlines and the shadows of trees. The rolling hums of the caissons echoing through the silence. We are the country of the memorial. Of shrouding the ugly with the veil of beauty. Walls and columns. Statues and monuments. And I will be the first to admit the beauty of it all.
But I will question it, too. Because of what I do not know. Because of what I am trying to know. Because in the holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, sprawled out under the wide sun, lies the Valley of Peace, Wadi as-Salaam, a cemetery holding millions of bodies, stretching six miles across the valley. Because there, due to the swelling of deaths since the American War, the lucrative rules over the dignified. Because there, Mahdi and Mujahideen soldiers hid amidst the graves, in tunnels, where the scared fugitives who wanted no part in war had also hid. It is a place where a mother is no longer able to be buried with her child, or a husband with his wife, or a brother with his brother, in the same way that, at Arlington, a husband can be buried twelve feet underground, his wife, nine, and their son, six. Where a horse does not have room to pull a caisson between the graves, and where there is not time enough to honor the ceremony of the dying, not when, certain days, there were over two hundred being buried there, each body quickly, to make time for the next. It is a place where it is not always safe for a family to come and place a stone upon the grave, to mark their respect. Where an American tank once rolled above the ground. There, it sometimes seems that only the dead are safe. And not even always, no.
I am thinking of Aeneas and Achates, walking side-by-side and grieving as they learn that Misenus, once an enemy and then a friend, slept unhappy in death as a result of his improper burial. I am thinking of the two of them, pausing amidst violence to build a pyre. There must be always a responsibility we hold toward the dead and the dying in the lands we walk into, regardless of what comes before the dying and regardless of what we each might believe comes after. This is not about the cost of war; it is about the work of living. It is about what happens when the well of empathy runs dry and the dead of the ‘other’ remain nameless and unimportant under the same sun that lingers high above where I am writing this and the same moon that will linger as I write this still.
Here, some part of me longs to offer suggestions, and I want to say something about what to do, or what not to do. But my mind is skewed, and my feet caught in my own soil. Our ability to perfect our own construct of the beauty of the dying carries with it a responsibility to imagine a life where we can no longer do such a thing. A responsibility to recognize how our violent involvement in other lands eats into the time and space of those who inhabit such places, who call it home, and who call their graves homes for their dying. To invade another’s space for the dying, and to continually tidy up your own, is like sweeping up the mess of your own home and throwing the excess dust on the furniture of a house where you are not welcome, where you never have and never will rest, so those living there are no longer familiar, even in the shadows they knew so well. It is like saying you know what beauty is.
For Arlington has had its own share of mismanagement, has had headstones washed up in creeks, things misaligned, has given cause to renew and intensify the grief of families. I am only saying that we, myself included, stop watching and start seeing. That we understand that a bullet should not have the power to erase a name. To think about what happens when the damage is done, and the body is pulled from a street and taken into a home to be washed, and the mourners wail. Wail sometimes into morning. Think of where you are sitting when you read this. Think of waking into each day to the sound of those who have lost. I cannot understand this. Even in this act of writing, I am simplifying the grief of others into a sound. I am failing.
Poet, in this small blue dress still stained, / the placard states, with the blood of the child / crushed dead by a soldier’s boot. Who failed / and fails?
I moved on from Arlington years ago. There, I soon stopped fixing computers and printers and began to assist in the effort to correct the mismanagement problems of the prior administration that oversaw the cemetery. Even then, I still sometimes had to turn off a thing and turn it back on, in order to allow it to begin working again. I will not lie, my experience there amongst the symmetry and the solemn and proud order of Arlington has embedded itself in me. It has deepened me. I felt humbled by Chief’s presence, honored to walk those grounds with him, honored to sometimes touch the horses whose soft rolling walk and shadow eyes allowed me to peer into their austere insight on death. When I tell friends and others of my time there, I hold the weight of the place in my mouth, and feel what deepness those words carry.
Pasternak wrote to live a life is not to cross a field. I crossed the field of the dead almost every day, in the early afternoons after lunch. I crossed one field and climbed into the next, where the markers were older and the dead were dead longer and some of them unknown always. Their names, unknown. And the fields of Arlington are still expanding. Expanding over roads, expanding closer to the Potomac, expanding through and into the old Navy Annex that stood along Columbia Pike. The fields of Arlington are expanding into the space of public living. If war, in some distant future, does not blot out the human existence, then this expansion would carry on forever, until we all made our home in the space of the dead, until each morning we had to cross those fields to carry on. To live a life is not to cross a field. But each day we would cross them. Each day, always, walking above the sleep of the dead.
You might say now how strange this sounds. How unlikely. But now you are in a place you do not recognize. And there is war. And the bodies fall as bodies do, limply, without justice. And each day you fear it will be your own that is next, or someone you love. And then, there will be the washing of the body, and the forever wailing, and the carrying to the undertaker who may or may not care, who may or may not exist, and the wondering of what will be done, and where the plot will be, if one plot will have to be uprooted to make room, if another body will be exhumed, if there will be the sounds of guns firing real bullets and not blanks when the body is put in the ground. And there will not be the sound of horses. And there will be no trumpet call. And you will not care for these things. Because you are hurt and you are in love. Because what is three inch grass to you? And what is marble?
But I do not understand. I have no answers. I have not held a gun at someone. I have not been at that other end, either. I have a father who spent his life in the logistics of war, and who came home each night to put on sweatpants and rub his beard against my face. Who some nights would walk so gently into my room to sit upon my bed and trim my toenails out of some austere and generous care. Who will die eventually, and who I will have to bury. And when that happens, I will want the grass trimmed so that I could walk barefoot upon it and it would not tickle my ankles. There are fields beyond, Randall Jarrell wrote, in his poem, “Survivor Among the Graves.” There are fields beyond the fields I walked through at Arlington, fields beyond this day and the next, fields beyond the Valley of Peace. This is a certainty. What is not certain, though, is how we honor the choice we have, to respect the dead we do not see and might not, even in our deepest attempt at empathy, care for. And these recent wars have created more fields of the dead among people we give little or no thought to. If you ever go to Arlington, think of this. And imagine it miles longer, and miles wider. Imagine it horseless and dusty. Imagine the sounds of guns and duck your head out of fear. Imagine the bodies exhumed for other bodies, and how you might have to walk two miles in one direction to see your mother and four miles in another to see your father. Imagine the promises made by undertakers and pallbearers to deliver the body you love to one place, and how you might go there, rose in hand, and not find that body, and that grave. Imagine your anger, breathe into it. War, like most things, is not gentle. It cannot be trimmed into beauty. Like a beard. Like grass. Like nails. Like what remains when the killing is done.
Italicized excerpts throughout the essay involve lines from 3 poems:
“Survivor Among the Graves,” Randall Jarrell, The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981)
“God is an American,” Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin, 2010)
“Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum,” Tarfia Faizullah, Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014)
Feature Image: Karen Bleier, AFP, Getty Images Via National Public Radio, 2012.
Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, Forklift Ohio, Big Truths, Passages North, and more, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Upper Manhattan, and teaches Creative Writing and English in Queens, as well as the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe