It’s really, really important that the American people think about who pays the price when we wage war. We shouldn’t go to war if we are uneducated about that cost. We shouldn’t let people make decisions for us. And we should think about the people who sacrificed, and the fact that it could be your next door neighbor or your son or your daughter someday. But you shouldn’t have your eyes and ears covered.
“It’s the saddest acre in America,” observes a young woman, “because of all the people from Iraq that are buried here, and Afghanistan too. I would say it’s also one of the most honorable places in America.” She’s standing in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Behind her stretch multiple rows of neat white military headstones, the number growing weekly. The woman is one of many mourners observed in Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s documentary. While none of the speakers is named, all are exposed, making plain the deep and ongoing costs of these wars without apparent ends.
Poignant and subtle, Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery shows how mourners come together even as they maintain specific relations with their relatives and friends. A mother holds her almost-toddler near her father’s headstone. “Feel that,” she says, “It’s cold. Daddy’s in there. Stand on those feet, say, ‘Dad, look, I can stand.’ That’s daddy.”
Again and again, visitors to the cemetery find comfort in the stones themselves. Even the ground provides a material comfort. “I can’t believe he’s under here,” one young visitor tells her friend and fellow widow. She takes comfort, she says, in standing on the grave. “He used to make me walk on his back to crack his back,” she remembers, “even when I was fat pregnant.” Her friend nods, then tells her story, the moment she learned she lost her husband: “The first thing I do every morning is check my email,” she says. “He didn’t write me that morning, but I thought, ‘I bet he just got back late from a mission and was too tired.’ So there I was painting. I can’t believe this happened. I hate this.” They look out at other mourners in the distance. The first woman says, “I don’t want anybody any other wife to go through this.”
Each moment at a gravesite is precious and particular, yet also broadly resonant. Over 300,000 people are buried in the cemetery, with current funerals averaging 28 a dad. Two of the almost four million people who visit Arlington each year, a couple stands at their son’s headstone. “I am father of Captain Humayan Muazzam Khan,” says the man, unable to hold back his own tears as he recalls the exact date of his loss. His wife reads a passage in Hindi, then says in English, “God bless everybody,” also crying, her body wracked with pain. The scene cuts to a funeral across the section begins as so many of them do: “We’ve come to lay to rest another great patriot,” says the chaplain, “He’s being laid to rest with great men and women, he will never be forgotten.”
Indeed, this is the point of the film, to remember, viscerally and indelibly. Not the details of each loss, as these are personal, but the fact of the loss. Though most accountings of the war invoke numbers — of dead, of wounded, of dollars spent – Section 60 insists on recovering what is unquantifiable, even indefinable. As politicians argue over measures of success or failure, the mourners at Arlington embody the perpetual and unchanging cost, the fact that war never grants victory.
Carefully and respectfully, the film reveals the cemetery’s material, spiritual, and emotional aspects. A backhoe makes its way noisily across the background of one shot, or in another, clambers into the foreground, opening up more dark brown space for yet another coffin. A young girl stands before her uncle’s grave with her mother. As they lay down flowers, the mother invites her child to tell the camera what she used to tell him: “If you go in the army,” the girls says, “you’ll get killed. He did. He got killed.” A woman introduces herself to another, and they watch a group of young cadets in the distance. “Their hats look too big,” says Paula, “like they’ve got on their fathers’ clothing. Too young, just look too young.” The second woman agrees. “I just wonder what goes through their mind when they here and see all this.”
A young soldier stands uncomfortably with an older man. “This was the hardest death for me,” the younger man says, gesturing toward his friend’s grave, “A rocket to the stomach.” When he came back home, he says as the film shows his arms, scarred with multiple cuts, “I started having flashbacks and blackouts, where I would wake up on the floor in the bathroom with a razor in my hand, cuts all the way down my wrist. Every single time, I dream he’s there. I’m taken back to the time when I was holding the dressing to his stomach as he was bleeding out.” The older man encourages him to remember his comrade’s courage, to take pride in their service man. He assures him, “It wasn’t your fault.”
The film offers a range of similar images, deferential, intimate, beautifully composed. Visitors come with memories and bring markers of their grief and hope: toy soldiers, balloons, photos, cards, angel tree ornaments and saluting snowmen. On Christmas, a woman and her daughter place candy canes on as many graves as they can manage. One woman takes off her coat and scarf, laying them on her son’s grave. “It’s getting cold,” she says. “I know how cold you are.”