Ritual as radical changeю The burial of the Unknown Soldier and ‘ways of using’ the space of Washington, DC, 11 November 1921

Helene Lipstadt

‘Ways of using’ as ‘another production’

Benedict Anderson famously considered tombs of Unknown Soldiers to be the most ‘arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism’, observing in Imagined Communities that

the public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments. . . has no true precedents in earlier times. . . . Yet void as the tombs are of identifiable mortal remains, . . . they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings. (This is why so many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians?).1

In fact, the nations which first entombed Unknown Soldiers at the end of the First World War – Britain, France, the US – did ‘feel’ the ‘need’ to specify their nationality of their Soldiers.2 Moreover, while many of these tombs are them­selves modest objects, most mere slabs in the ground, they were placed in the ambits of national monuments that should, by Anderson’s reckoning, have rendered the inscriptions redundant. We must, therefore, entertain the possi­bility that the tombs may be ‘saturated’ with imaginings other than national.

They were, as Anderson recognized, unprecedented, being innova­tions in the short, just 100-year-long, history of the burying of the bodies of common soldiers in marked graves (and even of the unidentified ones among them) and of the symbolic recognition of their contribution. Their one very distant precedent is the symbolic acknowledgment of the unidentifiable dead at the Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece. In recent decades, these tombs have been variously interpreted. Scholars believe them to have been places for symbolic action, whether by veterans keeping their cause before the public or by leaders of the new postwar mass societies for their own purposes, or as symbolic and practical responses to a war that created an extraordinary number of missing among its extraordinary number of dead.3 The nature of these tombs as places and objects has, however, gone unstudied.

But, given the simplicity of the tombs, what exactly can the historian of places and forms study? An analysis of the tombs as places could begin with the rituals and symbolic actions that accompanied the entomb­ments in their interactions with places and forms. It was because of and thanks to those rituals that, in so many countries, one of the numerous unknown soldier bodies became the Unknown Soldier, of which there can, by definition, be but one. But, as K. S. Inglis, the foremost historian of these Soldiers, has provocatively hinted, these rituals drew on and were informed by space: each Soldier’s ‘journey’ was importantly situated in carefully selected spaces, beginning in each case near the former front line and termin­ating, after elaborate public funeral processions, with its entombment in such highly significant ‘destinations’ such as Westminster Abbey, the Arc de Triomphe, and Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC, where its presence ‘not merely conformed with, but enriched and even transformed, the meaning of its site’.4

If site and Soldier were each mutually transformed, if ritual, and thus spatial practices, and space worked in some mutual interaction that was unprecedented, then a reappropriation of space took place; for ritual – by defi­nition associated with tradition and sacerdotal prescription – was paradoxically responsible for this radical change. Such a ‘transformation’ of meaning, it will be argued, occurred on 11 November 1921 in Washington, DC, and it was a radical one, unintended by the ceremony’s organizers. All the more radically, individuals and groups who were marginal to the ceremony or were mere observers took action, some of them literally ceasing to be bystanders and taking to the streets. These extras entered into the drama and provided alter­natives and contrasts to the planned whole.

So to conclude is tantamount to making a revisionist assertion. Of all the Soldiers, the American is viewed the most critically, if not most scepti­cally, by many, Inglis included.5 The shorter American engagement, smaller number of combat victims which some estimate at fewer than 100,000, greater psychological and physical distance from warfare, comparatively minor number of 2,000 to 4,000 unknown bodies, and, finally, the return to ‘normalcy’ with the rejection of Woodrow Wilson’s Treaty of Versailles and the election of Wallace Harding to the Presidency in 1920 – these are some of the factors that have led scholars to distinguish the meaning of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, buried on 11 November 1921, from its analogues and models in England and France, buried one year earlier. With the number of dead so few and the missing fewer, there was no collective mourning, and without collective mourning, it has been thought that the American Soldier could be meaningful only to the state as an instrument of discipline.

This is the reason that so many historians have sought the meaning of the Soldier in John Dos Passos’s description of the disinterment of the body and its burial in Washington.6 In one of the ‘Newsreels’ that punctuate his novel, Nineteen Nineteen, the former war veteran is thought to have exposed the claimed democracy of the Soldier to the glaring light of his anti-war sentiment. He described the members of the disinterring grave detail, digging through the ‘gagging chloride and the puky dirt stench of the year old dead’ and answering their officer’s racist command: ‘Make sure he ain’t a dinge, boys. Make sure he ain’t guinea or kike’ with the question ‘how can you tell a guy’s a hundred percent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack of bones, bronze buttons stamped with a screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?’ Dos Passos found everything about the burial service at Arlington National Cemetery to be a mockery, equating the small offerings of the ordinary Washingtonians, who ‘all. . . brought flowers’ to the grave site with the posturing of the ‘handsomely dressed ladies out of the society column’, the high diction of President Wallace Harding’s proclamation, and the symbolic pinning of their countries’ highest medals for valor on the place ‘where his chest ought to have been’ by the members of the diplomatic corps.7 His satire hits the mark: the American army was fundamentally racist, for it was very officially segregated; the imputing of exceptional heroism in battle to the Soldier was an absurd fiction; and the service was a spectacular event for those in and close to the federal government. Yet, these facts neither describe not account for the actions of the ordinary Washingtonians who were not members either of that army or that caste.8 Other witnesses, other kinds of evidence have yet to be consulted.

To comprehend the behaviour of the flower-bearing Washington­ians and even to recognize its conditions of possibility, another historio­graphical tradition is needed. One can draw on Roger Chartier’s generalized extension of Michel de Certeau’s notion of consumption as not only separate from production but as ‘another production’. Chartier argues that seeing con­sumption in that manner rescues it from passivity and allows us to conceive

reading, viewing and listening [as] … so many intellectual attitudes which, far from subjecting consumers to the omnipotence of ideological or aesthetic messages that supposedly conditions them, make possible reappropriation, redirection, defiance, or resistance. . . . Such a perspective provides a counterweight to an emphasis on the discursive or institutional apparatus in a society that is designed to delimit times and places, discipline bodies and practices and shape conduct and thoughts by the regulation of space.

One is reminded that de Certeau held that ‘another production’ manifested itself ‘through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant order’ and that it can take form in the ‘dispersed, tactical and makeshift creativity of groups of individuals already caught in the net of [Foucault’s] "discipline"’.9

The task is facilitated by the work of Lawrence Sullivan, the anthro­pologist of world religions, who sees state funerals as rituals which ‘can be full of contradictions, paradoxes and rough edges’. Taking the funeral of President John F. Kennedy as his example, he notes how the diverse histories that each observer brought to the ritual ‘collided’ with each other and how the ‘episodic nature of the complex symbolic structure’, with its separate venues and shifting dramatis personae performing within them, brought out ‘fissures and odd conjunctions in the structure of the event’. The storied structures, sites of the nation’s most visible performative acts; the less storied ‘cityscape’ of the vistas of the L’Enfant plan that provided the ‘stage and processional route for funeral’; and, finally, Arlington National Cemetery, with its very different history, all ‘function[ed] as stylized props that frame[d] the actions, shape[d] the ethos, and len[t] them meaning’, places thereby becoming some of the ‘frames, statements, and histories [that] clash and compete on the stage of symbolic action’.10

On 11 November 1920, there occurred a public funeral very much like the one described by Sullivan. Then, too, contradictions, ‘fissures’ and ‘odd conjunctions’ were present in the ritual. All this is not surprising, for the Soldier’s final rites were without precedent in the simplest sense: state funerals (and this was one, even if the word was not used) were relatively infrequent in the US and never before had there been one for a man without any identifying qualities, or, more precisely, for one whose only quality was its lack of qualities. In 1920, however, the ‘fissures’ and ‘odd conjunctions’ in the ritual took the form of unplanned interventions by observers.

It can also be argued that spaces brought to the ritual a history that was itself marked by ‘fissures’ and ‘odd conjunctions’, one of past and recent uses other than that of the performance of the nation’s most important civic rites like presidential inaugurals. These uses were in fact ‘everyday’ and diverse and therefore in contrast to, and potentially in conflict with, the symbolic action. This is all the more the case because a space that was not part of the national history, and even had a history of use considered inappro­priate to the ritual, was also employed, namely the racially mixed neighbour­hood of Georgetown. Even if it cannot be proven with absolute certainty, it is tempting to see these enframing spaces as enabling elements in these alter­ations in practice, and to see the altered practices simultaneously as appropriations of that space and of the object within it, the Unknown Soldier.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm