Obama Looks to Sacrifice of War Dead to Inspire American People

In his inaugural speech last month, the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, seemed to emphasise sacrifice: comparing that of the past with the future. He encouraged people to look to those in current military service ‘with humble gratitude ‘ that ‘they have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages’. Speaking of the shared spirit held by living and dead service personnel he defined this as ‘a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves…it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.’  There is no escaping the transmission of remembrance as patriotism in this, yet also, in asking people to relate to those who have died and may yet die, there appears to be the intention that the sacrifice he is asking of all the American people, in terms of economy and lifestyle, might not seem so high in comparison.

 Two days before his inauguration, Obama and Vice President-elect Biden went to Arlington Cemetery to place a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier. Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is situated directly across the Potomac River from Washington DC, and was opened in 1864 in the grounds of Arlington House, the residence of the Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee.

Obama and Biden lay a wreath at Arlington, January 2009

Obama and Biden, Arlington, January 2009

 There are well over 200,000 people buried there, including veterans and military casualties from every one of the nation’s wars from the American War of Independence to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among many other notables are two Presidents, Taft and Kennedy, Justices of the Supreme Court, explorers and astronauts.

Some thirty Commonwealth dead of the two world wars are also buried here, including Field Marshal Sir John Dill and Major General Orde Wingate. The latter had originally been buried in 1944 at the site of the air crash in India in which he died. Later his remains and those of the other victims of the crash were transferred to the British Military Cemetery at Imphal, whence they were transferred to Arlington, in keeping with an Anglo-American agreement to repatriate remains in mass graves to the country of origin of the majority of service personnel. The re-interment took place on 10 November 1950.  

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