Brother Bobby, McNamara, and Vietnam fallen surround him
By John L. Guerra
Last Sunday afternoon, as Key West rolled slowly toward a spectacular fall sunset, I stood on a high knoll over the west bank of the Potomac River. As the sun flung brilliance into the water of Key West Harbor, November in Arlington National Cemetery was as it always is. The big oaks, tall elms, beech and maples are nearly bare. They stand in place, guarding the endless rows of white headstones that carpet far hillsides in all directions. There is something about fallen leaves around a gravestone that murmurs immortality.
Though it's Sunday, the national military cemetery doesn't seem crowded; it can't. It is so broad and endless, this sea of tombstones, that ten thousand family members could search among the rows and there would still be silence.
It is five days before the 50th anniversary of JFK's public murder by rifle in Dallas. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I have never been to his grave, never seen the Eternal Flame. I stand here now, though, with my back to the federal city built on the plain far below. The propane-fueled flame jutting from the flat, stone slabs of JFK's grave doesn't flicker. It burns strong. There is no hiss of gas.
The graves seem arranged not by name, but by historical relationship. His wife, Jacqueline, is on his right. On his left, the small stone flush with the ground is his son Patrick's marker. The newborn died August 7, 1963, about three months before his father's slaying.
JFK is not alone on the hill. Two hundred feet away on the same ridge his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, lays under a simple marble marker in the grass. Bobby grew tired of the war his brother had seeded and watered. Bobby gathered the anti-war forces during his 1968 campaign and promised to stop the killing. He was brought down, too.
Walk another 200 feet along the same ridge and a large, pink granite memorial stone marks the grave of JFK's defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara. McNamara's refusal to heed simple facts laid before him by American advisors in South Vietnam made unnecessary so many of the headstones on Arlington's grass sea. In his last years, McNamara laid his sins before America's feet and asked forgiveness.
I met a man. A greying executive haircut--a former infantry officer--but like everyone else breathing a little harder as we tackled the long walk up the hill to JFK's grave. His wife was with him on this walk, as she had been in spirit when he was in Bien Hoa, or My Tho, or Danang--wherever he had fought. She had welcomed him home when his war ended. With all the headstones, monuments, and somber statues to the slain in sight, she knew how kind fate had been. Her husband, instead of walking beside her today, could instead be buried under his own Pentagon-issued grave stone on this November hill.
"I know some guys who are buried here," the man said, answering my question. "I don't know how to find any of them."
I told him about the help desk in the visitor's center some distance behind us. You go up to the counter, you give them the name of the deceased, they look it up on the computer and draw a line on a map of the cemetery so you can find their sites.
"I should do that," he said. But in the meantime, we kept climbing the hill.
He had come to see JFK.