An American Hajj

By Charles A. Krohn
Sunday, August 12, 2007

Muslims are obliged to make at least one trip to the holy city of Mecca during their lifetime. This pilgrimage is known as the hajj. It is mandatory for men, voluntary but encouraged for women. A basic dress code ensures that there's no visible difference between rich and poor, weak and powerful. This simple requirement unites the faithful.

I started thinking about the hajj in the spring, when my wife and I visited nine American military cemeteries in Europe. With the exception of the Normandy American Cemetery, which attracts thousands, others are virtually devoid of visitors, especially American visitors. I wondered:

What if every American who is able to do so made an effort to visit at least one American military cemetery overseas during his or her lifetime?

Most of the cemeteries are in Europe, holding the remains of service members killed during World Wars I and II. Altogether, about 125,000 graves are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, and 95,000 missing soldiers are commemorated on bronze or stone. I work for the commission, yet nothing prepared me for the experience of seeing row upon row of crosses and Stars of David, maintained in absolute splendor. Walking with a cemetery superintendent who tells the stories of the fallen, my soul churned as I absorbed the extent of their sacrifice.

I'm an old soldier with combat experience. I appreciate the notions of valor and sacrifice. Still, my emotions were overwhelmed while I heard men and their exploits described so simply. There is no high-brow language. The superintendents say: Here's who's buried here, this is what we know about him, and this is what he was doing when he was killed.

The dead are buried without regard to rank. My gratitude flowed as I realized how many of the fallen were barely past adolescence.

We also visited several German cemeteries, including one from World War I near our Aisne-Marne American Cemetery not far from Chateau Thierry and Belleau Woods, outside Paris. With no superintendent on location, we picked up a brochure. It suggests that if visitors listen carefully, the tombstones will talk to them.

Americans visiting our overseas military cemeteries will find themselves enriched in ways I can only partially explain. At a minimum, the visit will prompt a renewed, and awesome, appreciation of those who sleep in the dust below.

Such experiences help put into perspective how our nation benefits from the sacrifice of those willing to put their lives on the line. Without such devotion to dangerous duty, the United States has little to hold itself together. Prosperity is not enough. Our history is based on service, costly service.

The notion of an American hajj has loopholes, I know. But the thought of an activity or sacrifice that draws us together has merit, and we need this coming together now more than ever.

The writer is deputy director of public affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company