Monument to Misdirection

“Report on Alternative Measures to Address Cracks in the Monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia” isn’t an arresting headline. However, it offers an important lesson in how to use the Internet to create public opinion.

Readers of Stone Business know plenty about this topic, from the publications of various news items to a particularly vitriolic column I wrote earlier this year. I claim no impartiality here, but I’ll relay the bare bones:

• Those aforementioned cracks, after 45 years of study and repair, are getting larger. Five years ago, the Department of the Army (which oversees Arlington) started a process to likely replace the cracked monument with an exact duplicate.

• Operators at the Colorado Yule Quarry in Marble, Colo., the source of the original monument’s stone – without a government contract, mind you – found and cut a block that would match the current monument. John Haines, a Glenwood Springs, Colo., car dealer, stepped forward to donate the stone to the federal government, and even cover the shipping back to the East Coast .

However, the idea of replacement didn’t set well with the southern field officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (NTHP), who wrote a letter to Arlington officials in June 2007. A few months later, the NTHP (which, to be clear, isn’t part of the federal government) stepped up their effort to stop the replacement process.

What ensued was a crafty effort that landed the “save the Tomb” story in preservationist- and veterans-themed blogs, USA Today, National Public Radio and other media outlets. The implication was that the Army was hell-bent on doing something (replacement) without public input, which was a sham argument. The Army probably didn’t offer engraved invitations, but it’d been covered in various publications, and there’d been a link for years (which now leads to the congressional report) concerning the process on the cemetery’s home page.

What happened? Two senators inserted legislation calling for a report on monument replacement vs. repair into the 2008 authorization act to fund the Defense Department, with a staff member for one of them (Daniel Akaka) remarking that he’d never heard about the process before the fomented public outcry. (Somebody’s gotta work on better circulation for the Washington Post.)

The subsequent report – mostly a restatement of the Army’s process, reviewed by a panel of experts — noted that repairs would cost $65,000 and replacement would be $2 million or so (minus the donated stone, which was ignored in the report). The argument from the blogosphere will likely be to take the cheaper route.

Of course, this obscures the entire debate of whether the monument (which houses no remains) is more of a historic structure in and of itself, or a symbol of a nation’s devotion. A structure can be repaired and renewed, but do you want to do a patch job on a symbol?

The NTHP, meanwhile, is milking the controversy with a picture of the monument sporting a “Donate Now” link for the group. It also offers the threat level for the monument as destruction, a term never used in the Army’s process. (The report to Congress notes the current monument, upon replacement, would be preserved.)

As if there’s not enough shame to go around, consider a recent Denver Post article, where Thurman Higganbotham, deputy superintendent at Arlington, noted Haines’ donation as thus:

“It’s not doable. A citizen can’t just give us any piece of marble and say, ‘This is what we’ll use to replace the tomb.’”

Yeah. Just any old multi-ton, crack-free piece cut from the same quarry.

This blog doesn’t have a Gallery of Ignominy it in yet, but it’s already lining up some charter members.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at www.stonebusiness.net, where you can also find this blog at the top of the home page under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

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One response to “Monument to Misdirection

  1. Who is the other scalawag beside Daniel Akaka that needed their palms greased?

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