In April, Israel brought home the remains of Sargent Zachary Baumel, a soldier who perished in Lebanon in 1982. After 37 years tracking Baumel’s remains to Syria and negotiating their recovery through Russia, the Israeli government laid him to rest at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.  

For Senator Tom Cotton, the extraordinary measures taken on behalf of soldiers who rally to the flag and do not return from the breach is not simply a de rigueur tradition. In Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, the junior senator from Arkansas has written an encomium to the martial virtues as embodied by his former unit, the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—the Old Guard. In the process, Cotton echoes Plato’s view that the ritual of honoring those who make the ultimate sacrifice has as much to do with advising the living as it does with praising the dead.

The Old Guard is the official ceremonial outfit of the U.S. Army charged with presiding over the funerals of soldiers. Commissioned in 1784, it’s America’s oldest active-duty regiment and has a distinguished record on the battlefield. Given the Founders’ aversion to standing armies (Washington and Hamilton were prominent exceptions), its longevity has an interesting backstory. 

After the Continental Army dealt a lethal blow to the British garrison at Yorktown in 1781, the Continental Congress disbanded the armed forces—“the kind of rash military drawdown after a conflict,” Cotton observes, “that happens all too often across our history.” Swiftly recognizing the fallacy of the Anti-Federalists’ opposition to a military establishment, Congress hastened to retain a small but permanent cadre of professional soldiers, or “regulars.” The First American Regiment, as the Old Guard was originally known, was born.

In Sacred Duty, the story of “America’s regiment,” as it’s affectionately dubbed, is told in two parts. It opens with a concise history of the Old Guard—from its modest beginnings as a frontier force pacifying “Injun country” and thrashing Santa Anna’s army in decisive assaults en route to Mexico City, through the early campaigns of the Civil War, to its deployment to the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. 

But it’s the Old Guard’s ceremonial role, played since 1948 at Arlington National Cemetery, that sustains Cotton’s rich narrative. Stationed at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, the all-volunteer unit is equipped to conduct more than 20 funerals per day. These services are carried out by specially trained soldiers culled from the ranks on account of their professionalism. This has become the principal mission of the Old Guard, which is best known today for performing the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and supervising the horse-drawn caisson in prominent military-honor funerals. The cemetery at Arlington, founded by the victorious Union to bury its dead, is now the resting place of more than 400,000 soldiers. And that number grows with each passing year.

As a former Old Guard soldier himself, Cotton is well qualified to write about the warriors who stand watch in quiet dignity over the 624 acres of “our nation’s most sacred shrine.” Between combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton carried the flag-draped remains of his fallen comrades off of airplanes at Dover Air Force Base, and he helped lay them to rest in Arlington’s Section 60—“the noblest acre in America.” From this hallowed experience with an incomparable military unit, Cotton attempts to discern the spirit of the country that produced it—decent, idealistic, and strong. His intimate study conveys an appropriately awed appreciation for those who have borne the sting of battle and the burden of its aftermath. It also examines the prestige accrued to the United States by the band of “citizen soldiers” down the generations and—since the abolition of conscription in 1973—the “1 percent” who answer their country’s call today.

More than once, Sacred Duty calls attention to the “strategic messaging” of armed-forces ceremonies performed for select foreign dignitaries. Cotton poignantly records the May 2018 arrival ceremony at the Pentagon for the ministers of defense from Sweden and Finland—small, relatively weak, non-NATO allies that are nonetheless worthy of Washington’s finest tributes. This gesture of magnanimity and respect, emblematic of what historian Thomas Madden calls America’s “empire of trust,” is part of the reason that Americans have long enjoyed a reputation as imperfect but reliable allies. 

Cotton also offers a wealth of interesting historical and procedural detail. We learn, among other things, that: A presidential wreath ceremony requires more than 500 personnel (half of which are provided by the Old Guard); the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier contains the remains of three comrades-in-arms “known but to God”; three different varieties of military funerals occur, depending mostly on the decedent’s rank; a senior sergeant’s sword, which is straight and designed for thrusting, is distinct from an officer’s saber, which is curved and designed for slashing (an homage to 19th-century warfare, when officers were often mounted).

Those familiar with the author’s pugnacious political style will not be astonished to find that this book is written in the distinct vernacular of the U.S. military, employed by commissioned and noncommissioned officers alike: Soldiers who are fit for duty are “squared-away,” getting “bloused up” means putting the belt over a ceremonial uniform, and troops deployed in foreign theaters are “downrange.” 

Cotton fondly notes the presence of chaplains at Arlington but doesn’t dwell on the potentially fraught issue. While James Madison lamented the hiring of a chaplain by the First Congress as well as by the armed forces, Cotton offers no dissent to the practice of ministers in uniform being paid out of the public treasury. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The reader is served notice at the outset that Sacred Duty is rigorously apolitical, including on matters more pressing than ecclesiastical authority in the ranks. 

To read Sacred Duty is to be struck by the chasm that has opened between the military and the political class. Although a war record has traditionally been regarded as a major advantage for rising American politicians, fewer and fewer can lay claim to one anymore. Veterans of the United States military have constituted a dwindling fraction of Congress since the end of the Vietnam War, and the 2012 contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney was the first presidential election since World War II without a military veteran on the ballot. Of course, in 2016 the exception repeated itself—and it looks likely to do so again in 2020.

America’s form of republican government depends on the perpetuation of political institutions that in turn depend on the nurturing of certain virtues in individual Americans and the country as a whole. On the evidence of our continuing political degeneration, those virtues—including what Theodore Roosevelt called the “stern and virile virtues”—are attenuating at a brisk pace. Cotton’s account of the noble regiment established at the dawn of our nation and still standing sentry over those who gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to the republic is a welcome reminder that those virtues still exist somewhere in America.

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