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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Failing Lincoln's Request


In his Second Inaugural Address, with the end of the Civil War in sight and barely six weeks before an assassin's bullets would make him America's martyr, Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow citizens "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ..."

Ten months earlier, on May 13, 1864, 21-year-old Army private William Henry Christman of Lehigh, Penn., would be the first soldier to be buried in the new national cemetery people called Arlington.

For 146 years, Arlington National Cemetery has been a place of reverence and a place for remembering. Now, thanks to the relentless reporting of Salon's Mark Benjamin, we know with sorrow and fury, after a seven-month investigation by the Army, that the remains of at least 211 of those eligible for burial in this hallowed spot were misidentified, misplaced or mislabeled.

This is Arlington National Cemetery. This is where the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II — whose 33 citations and awards, included the Medal of Honor, and who personally killed at least 240 enemy soldiers — Audie Murphy, is buried. Here lie former Sgt. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of whom Jimmy Cannon wrote, "Joe Louis is a credit to his race — the human race," as well as astronauts Christa McAuliffe, "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Dick Scobee. The man they called the GI's general, Omar Bradley, a young Navy lieutenant who would become president, John Kennedy, and another who would become chief justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, all rest here.

Those names were known to millions. But there are 300,000 more at Arlington who are not famous but who shared in their youth a love of country and a living patriotism that summoned them to the service of their country. They come overwhelmingly from the ranks of the unpampered and the unprivileged.

Most of the 300,000 are known only to those who loved them — their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, and, of course, their spouses. They, the survivors, are the ones who come to visit the gravesite to connect, for consolation and a little comfort.

Instead of solace, because of the incompetence and indifference of the individuals in charge of the cemetery, those grieving got a hard punch in the stomach. They can no longer know for sure if the grave and the headstone they visited to pray and to reflect belongs to their fallen warrior or a stranger. The cemetery leadership — which between 2002 and 2009 spent $5.5 million in contracts allegedly to computerize the cemetery records, only to have the inaccurate records still on 3-by-5 cards — has been relieved.

Let's be blunt. This is not the equivalent of putting a man on the moon or plugging a hole in an oil well a mile underwater. This is not multi-tasking. This is a solemn mission but a straightforward task, to be performed with consideration and respect, of simply identifying the right person and then burying her or him in the right place with the right marker.

You cannot go to a political event without being told by speaker after speaker just how much we honor and owe those who wear the uniform and who defend the nation. Oh, yeah, well then how do you explain the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and the emotional abuse of surviving families at Arlington?

To his credit, Army Secretary John McHugh could barely conceal his own anger at the report on the failures at Arlington, for which his department is responsible. Let us resolve to keep the pressure on the Congress and on the administration until Arlington National Cemetery is made once again a place of reverence and a place for remembering, where those entitled to rest there — and those who mourn them — are treated with respectful professionalism and personal gratitude.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




5 Comments | Post Comment
I'm no tea-partier--far from it. But I'm utterly disgusted, over and over, with the behavior of government employees. Regardless which agency Is under discussion, the attitudes include everything from laziness and indifference to outright corruption. The financial meltdown wouldn't have happened if the SEC had done its job. The oil spill wouldn't have happened if MMS had been on the ball. Last year, the IRS hounded me over a tax return that was honest and timely, but they got it in their heads that I was two different people and made me pay taxes twice. My friends are being raked over the coals by the Social Security Administration, for a mistake that even SSA admits was their own. Contempt rules at government agencies, and dishonesty and incompetence are common. What in the world is the problem, anyway?
Comment: #1
Posted by:
Sat Jun 19, 2010 5:10 AM
Sir; .... It is well and good to honor the dead, to wave the flag, and to flower their graves with respect... But if we would honor the dead we must stand for what they died for, for liberty, and justice, equality and democracy... The dead are no sooner gone to war and killed than the meaning is taken out of their sacrifice and turned to profit... Look at the sums thrown around in Iraq and Afghanistan... Look at how well corruption of politics undermined every futile effort of every grunt soldier in every conflict we have ever sent to war... In China, and in Vietnam, and in Korea; the insidious corruption of our core values brought to nothing the brave sacrifices of our youth, and in fact, brought them as pawn into foreign conflicts... As long as some one is making money on it, no one should go to war... What the poor die for the rich should pay for, and now, with poverty turning so many into mercenaries, with government service the only ladder out of poverty can any one say our core values exist at all??? ...If we had justice we would not have poverty...If we had democracy we would not be fighting abroad for values lacking at home...If we had liberty and democracy we would all have our piece of this land, justice in our affairs, solutions from our government, and something to fight for all the time....I would worry about the dead were the dead not proved fools lured into combat and manslaughter to protect the spoils of criminals...These are our dead, and they did not die for a flag, or a song, but for ideals that should shine eternal in the heart of humanity... But the meaning has long been sucked out of those fine ideals for which our brave men died- that was exploited, and turned to profit before their eyes... We should now live for what they died, give meaning to their pride, and honor their brave deeds by brave thought... Only we can push forward the future to a day of promise, the day those brave ones were each promised... Only we can breathe new life into old ideals... And only with great courage, to abandon the old society and form a new society on the waste of the old -will we know the blessing of liberty which has consumed the lives of so many for nothing...Thanks... Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jun 19, 2010 6:24 AM
The administrators should be given fines big enough to pay to DNA test the confused grave occupants. Any that cannot be matched should be provided a separate area of "unknown heroes" with a listing of probable names heading the area. If the administrators cannot pay the total amount, let taxpayers make up the difference. These brave souls deserve tax-payer money a lot more than millionaire CEOs do.
Totally on an unrelated topic--Joe Barton is my Congressman. Paraphrasing the Dixie Chicks' comment about George W. Bush, I'm ashamed to live in this Congressional district of Tarrant Country, Texas!
Comment: #3
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Jun 20, 2010 11:30 PM
Mark, thank you for bringing this up in your column here and on The News Hour Friday night. This is awful news that needs serious attention.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Jason
Mon Jun 21, 2010 7:10 AM
Your article appeared in the local paper yesterday, June 21. It was of particular interest to me because the person you wrote about, Private William Henry Christman, was an ancestor of mine through my mother's line. I was really impressed that you would dig up that piece of information for your article. Several of my cousins have visited his gravesite. Thank you for "making my day".
Comment: #5
Posted by: julie mager
Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:10 PM
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