- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Army plans to make a decision by the end of the month whether to replace the 71-year-old Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

The decision would be the culmination of years of debate over how to treat several non-structural cracks that officials say diminish the aesthetic value of the 48-ton white marble monument.

“We want to have as flawless as possible a monument to our unknown soldiers,” said Army spokesman Sheldon Smith. “But no final decisions have been made.”

Mr. Smith said the Army is leaning toward replacing the tomb because the quarry that supplied the marble for the existing tomb has offered to donate a new stone to the cemetery and engrave it. The existing tomb would be donated to the Smithsonian Institution or a military museum if it is replaced.

But that proposal has drawn criticism by some historic preservation groups who think the existing tomb is what makes the monument historically significant. Built to honor unidentified dead soldiers from America’s wars, the monument carries the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

“It’s our nation’s most important war memorial,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mr. Moe favors repairing the monument. “It should be left in place, so we can honor its history and symbolism.”

In an e-mail obtained by The Washington Times, Army Cultural Resources Program Manager Scott Watson asked that the parties involved in the proposal provide input by Aug. 27 for the review process, referred to as the Section 106 process after the enabling legislation, so a decision could be made by Sept. 30.

“Our goal is to complete the Section 106 process and have the [agreement] executed by the four signatories by September 30, 2007,” Mr. Watson said.

The agreement must be signed by Arlington National Cemetery, the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Department of Veteran Affairs by the date.

Mr. Smith said he could not verify whether there was a target date by which the decision must be made. However, he said that there was “a sense of urgency because the marble is not going to be in the quarry forever.”

Mr. Smith said if the quarry is unable to excavate marble that is of the same quality as the existing stone, it will resort to repairing the existing stone.

Rob Neiwig, a spokesman for the national trust, said the group has been asking the public to write letters to Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler opposing the replacement of the monument.

Mr. Neiwig said about 3,700 people have sent e-mails to Mr. Metzler through the National Trust’s Web site since a notice and form letter about the proposal were posted on Sept. 12.

Mr. Moe said he advocates repairing the marble because the replacement will likely suffer similar cracks, an assessment that was reported in a review of repair and replacement done by the cemetery last year.

“It’s nearly impossible to get a piece of marble without imperfections,” Mr. Moe said. “Anyone who deals in marble knows that.”

The most noticeable crack in the monument cuts right through the middle, prominent enough that it even appears on a scale model of the tomb in the cemetery visitors center. It cuts in half the sculpted figures of Greeks representing peace, victory and valor on one side, and runs right below the words “An American,” as if underlining it for emphasis.

The tomb has been patched repeatedly, most recently in 1989. But a 1990 report concluded the fissures would only get worse.

The 200 acres of land around the Arlington Mansion were designated as a military cemetery in 1864. More than 300,000 people are buried there, making it the second-largest national cemetery in the country, according to the cemetery’s Web site.

About 6,400 people are buried at Arlington annually.

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