Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Army will not be allowed to replace the cracked monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery without first reporting to Congress on repair options and getting lawmakers’ approval.

The requirement was included in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act signed Monday by President Bush.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, introduced the amendment in September, after The Washington Times reported the Army was nearing a decision to replace the 48-ton white marble sarcophagus.

“Like the Liberty Bell and the Star-Spangled Banner, the monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns is a national treasure that has been weathered by time,” Mr. Akaka said yesterday. “We must ensure that we first explore all options and move with great caution.”

Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, co-sponsored the amendment as a way to “slow down the process,” but said through a spokeswoman at the time that he was not “taking sides” on the issue.

The Army had been considering replacing the 71-year-old stone because officials said that several nonstructural cracks diminished its aesthetics.

The monument carries the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

The most noticeable crack in the monument cuts through the middle, prominent enough that it even appears on a scale model of the tomb in the cemetery’s 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.”

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

Army spokesman Sheldon Smith said yesterday that shortly before the amendment was proposed that officials involved in the decision-making process had privately begun to shy away from replacing the marble.

“It was dying in discussions before the amendment even came up,” Mr. Smith said. “I think the short-term answer is repair.”

Mr. Smith said in September that the Army was considering replacement because the quarry from which the original stone was cut offered to donate a new block of equal quality.

He said that the Army will likely use information from a previous study conducted in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act for the report to Congress but will have to update some information.

The National Historic Preservation Act requires administrators of sites that are included in, or eligible to be included in, the National Registry of Historic Places to study the effect of improvement projects. The act does not require congressional approval of recommendations made in connection with a study.

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.

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