Published: June 2007
Rick Atkinson

Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of those killed in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, Corduroy to her son, who was killed in Iraq in 2005. "She drives down every few weeks to read to him. Then she puts an iPod down and plays him his songs." The cemetery is a place of grief, love, and honor, Atkinson says. "It's part of the warp and woof of our national story."

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Perhaps the best thing about Arlington National Cemetery is the ability to read history through your fingertips. It's a very tactile place, where even the sighted can quickly learn a kind of historical Braille: by tracing the names of the dead on headstones, whether in the soft, rounded letters of the older graves or the sharp cusps on stones newly chiseled; or by feeling the 19th-century brick beneath the faux-marble finish of the Custis-Lee mansion; or by fingering the leather harnesses of the caisson teams in the stables at adjacent Fort Myer, tack carefully modeled after designs from the early 20th century.

One late summer day, Erik Dihle, chief of grounds and burial operations, unlocked the black door on the inconspicuous whitewashed chapel—now used as a storage shed—across from the original Field of the Dead. The concrete floor, tile walls, and big sink gave the place the ambience of a morgue. With Dihle's permission, I climbed onto a shelf where a gray canvas cover shrouded a massive rectangular object. Unsnapping a corner of the canvas, I found the catafalque on which the casket of one of the unknowns selected in 1958 had lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda before interment at Arlington, and on which President Kennedy's casket had rested in the White House five years later. I felt the velvet swags and the cotton fringe and ran my finger over the black broadcloth, reading the record of national loss.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

For anyone who lingers long at Arlington, the worst experience, of course, is the relentless procession of corteges for young soldiers cut down before their time. The funerals have a majestic, stylized quality that channels grief within ceremonial orthodoxy; the military's organizational genius is on full display, with a daily choreography that never seems rushed, yet manages to complete about 25 services in an eight-hour day.

But on weekends, when there are no funerals, grief and mourning become more free-form. On a Sunday afternoon in early spring, when the redbud trees had bloomed but the cherry blossoms had yet to open along the Potomac River, I found in Section 60—where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried—a half-dozen mourning parties, each gathered around a gleaming marble headstone newly inserted into the sod. One group of twentysomethings held a classic wake, swapping stories about the dead man and pouring libations from little liquor bottles into the grass for their lost friend. Not 50 feet (15 meters) away, in the same row, a mother sat wrapped in a quilt before the headstone of her son, a Marine Corps lance corporal. Hunched over a spiral notebook, she wrote page after page, a missive to the beyond.

Six or seven rows to the south, where those killed early in the Iraq war are buried, I spied the grave of an old friend I never knew: Sgt. 1st Class John W. Marshall. On April 12, 2003, when I was an embedded reporter in the 101st Airborne Division, our unit found Sergeant Marshall's body in a shallow grave in south Baghdad. A soldier in the Third Infantry Division, he had been missing since the ambush of his convoy four days earlier. As a chaplain read from Psalms, his remains were lifted into a body bag, draped with an American flag, and carried to a Humvee for eventual burial here, in Section 60.

I was writing a book about the invasion of Iraq, and I made an effort to learn more about Sergeant Marshall. Born in Los Angeles, he had joined the Army at 18. His father, Joseph, had been an Army quartermaster during World War II; his mother, Odessa, was a medical technician in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, an unusual distinction for a black woman in those days. Odessa Marshall had worn her uniform to her son's funeral.

Sergeant Marshall was nearing retirement when he was killed at age 50. The war in Iraq had been his first combat tour. His survivors include a widow and six children, ages nine to 17; they collected his posthumous Silver Star and Purple Heart. In his last dispatch home, Marshall saw little merit in debating the mission in Iraq. "It's really not an issue with me," he had written. "I am not a politician or a policy maker, just an old soldier. Any doubts on my part could get someone killed."