In his excellent review of Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, by Senator Tom Cotton, Scott Johnson criticized himself for not asking Tom about his service in the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery when the two met in New York City years ago. Scott says he now “feels like a fool” for not having asked questions that would have elicited some of the information contained in Tom’s book.
Having met with Tom fairly regularly while he was serving in Arlington, I feel doubly foolish. I never inquired more than superficially about Tom’s service there. I did coax out one or two stories about his service in Iraq (stories about Tom’s men, not Tom himself), but virtually nothing about his service during the period in which our meetings took place.
On Memorial Day, perhaps I can make amends by echoing Scott’s praise for Sacred Duty. The book is many things, but above all it’s the story of how the venerable Old Guard, America’s oldest active duty regiment, pays tribute to America’s fallen warriors by providing them and their loved ones with a perfect military funeral.
The meticulousness of the funerals, as described by Tom, is astounding. Tom reflects it with the meticulousness of his account — not just of the funerals themselves, but of his description of the training that goes into carrying them out.
Tom could easily have written a different book. I’m sure it wasn’t difficult to resist the usual work of a rising politician, about which a reviewer of Kamala Harris’ contribution to the genre says: “If a great book is a sumptuous meal, the campaign book is a bottle of Soylent.”
But Tom could have provided a book almost none of the important politicians of our era could honestly have written. He could have written about how he left Washington, and Big Law, to fight for his country. He could have written about his combat duty.
Characteristically, though, Tom chose not to write much about himself. He chose to write about his unit, about America’s most sacred shrine, about the duty America owes to its fallen warriors and their loved ones, and about the perfection the Old Guard achieves in fulfilling that duty.
A book only about funerals and their back story, even ones as important and unique as those he describes, would be tough sledding. Tom intersperses his book with, among other things, a history of the Old Guard since its formation in the 1780s. The Old Guard featured prominently in most of the nation’s military campaigns until World War I.
We also get a sense of the history of the war on terrorism. The Old Guard jumped into that war on its first day when it deployed to the Pentagon immediately after the attack. Since that dreadful day, the course of this struggle can be tracked through the varying volume of the Old Guard’s trips to Dover, Delaware, where the war dead arrive in the U.S., and of the funerals conducted by the Old Guard in Arlington.
I fully concur with Scott, this is a needed, moving, and powerful book.