Tomb of the Known Unknowns

Do we really need to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns in the midst of a hurricane?

Half of my Facebook stream is sharing this picture of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns:

While I’m as sentimental about America’s fallen heroes as the next guy and have great admiration for the young infantrymen performing this prestigious duty, it nonetheless strikes me as insane to have them out there in the face of an approaching hurricane. We closed the federal government down for the day and closed the subway system for the first time in nearly a decade before it even started raining because the forecast is that bad. Somehow, I don’t think whoever’s buried under that marker will mind being left unattended for the day; they’d mind very much getting three troopers killed needlessly honoring them.

UPDATE: Ryan Ferguson points me to this from the Honor Guard FAQ:

… the accomplishment of the mission and welfare of the Soldier is never put at risk. The Tomb Guards have contingencies that are ready to be executed IF the weather conditions EVER place the Soldiers at risk of injury or death – such as lightning, high winds, etc. This ensures that Sentinels can maintain the Tomb Guard responsibilities while ensuring soldier safety. It is the responsibility of the Chain of Command from the Sergeant of the Guard to the Regimental Commander to ensure mission accomplishment and soldier welfare at all times.

It was erroneously reported that during Hurricane Isabel, the Sentinels were ordered to abandon their posts for shelter and that they refused. No such order was ever given. All proper precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the Sentinels while accomplishing their mission. Risk assessments are constantly conducted by the Chain of Command during changing conditions to ensure that soldier welfare is maintained during mission accomplishment.

So, presumably, these guys won’t be there if and when this gets worse than a heavy rainstorm.

UPDATE 2: Apparently, the picture was taken during an ordinary rainstorm in September.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Natural Disasters, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    they’d mind very much getting three troopers killed needlessly honoring them.


  2. Franklin says:

    It *is* a striking image, though. And bayonets.

  3. mattb says:

    For what it’s worth, we’re not the only country that does this. I got some great shots in Rome, during a pretty steady, heavy rain of their honor guard in front of the Italian tomb for the unknowns.

  4. John Peabody says:

    While a large-scale storm has a certainty of causing horrific damage somewhere, it is quite probable that a specific location will not get a direct hit of a tornado / lightning strike / 80mpf wind gust. Presumably, a fully-stocked shelter of refuge is only seconds away, should the need arise. And, I wouldn’t undercut the value of these Facebook pictures…it plants an incredible image in the reader, that there are some things in this life that you just don’t abandon.

  5. Mikey says:

    @mattb: I visited Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa and was surprised to find it is not guarded around-the-clock–in fact, when I was there, no guards were present. It sits at the base of the Canadian War Memorial near Parliament Hill. The soldier interred therein died in France in World War 1 and was buried there until 2000 when he was moved with great ceremony back to Canada.

    When I was a senior in high school, we made a trip to DC and visited the Tomb of the Unknowns. Someone (not from my class) thought they could step over the chain while the guard was marching the other way. Bad idea…that guard had some high level of awareness, because it took him about a second to stop, turn, train his weapon on the interloper, and bark something I can’t remember exactly but probably amounted to “get back on the other side of that chain or you will have breathed your last.” It was most impressive.

  6. matt says:

    @Mikey: I’ve only ever seen them phrase the warnings as as request 😛

  7. Mikey says:

    @matt: There was nothing in that guy’s voice but business. I still remember his tone, even after 28 years.

    I can’t recall the exact words but I bet the kid who had his foot on the wrong side of the chain remembers…

  8. calder says:

    @Mikey: ” … train his weapon on the interloper … you will have breathed your last … ”
    Really ?? That’s a stretch … “We shot the kid because he stepped over the chain link” is neither a good / valid defense nor a good strategy.

  9. Mikey says:

    @calder: Do you think their weapons are just for show? I don’t. And I have no doubt there is a point at which they would fire. I don’t know what that point is–probably very few outside the Old Guard do. But I was there and the guard’s weapon was quite clearly aimed at the individual, which means deadly force was available.

  10. calder says:

    @Mikey: It gets several thousands / millions of visitors. And no kid has been killed there since 1931 ?? Which is more probable: that no ambitious / pranky teenager has crossed the link or that s/he was subdued and not shot ??

  11. 11B40 says:


    Well, it seems Mr. Joyner has aligned his thinking with the “force protection” folks who have taken such control of our hollowed out military. We sure wouldn’t want three or four bodies to show up across the river from the White House this close to the Presidential election, now would we ???

    I guess that they don’t teach that “Lead, follow, or stand out of the way.” much anymore.

  12. M. Bouffant says:

    Yes, bayonets. On M-14s, not the standard issue weapon since the ’60s. This is a ceremonial guard, & I really doubt if their weapons are loaded, any more than a drill team’s weapons are loaded when they toss them in the air & catch them.

    Also from the Honor Guard FAQ:

    Today, most of the challenges faced by the Sentinels are tourists who want to get a better picture or uncontrolled children (which generally is very frightening for the parent when the Soldier challenges the child).

    Challenges, not shoots on sight.

  13. During Isabel, the Guards decided that if the wind became so strong they actually could not walk the post, they would repair to the trophy room, from which they could observe the tomb. This proved unnecessary.

    I have also been present when someone, an adult, stepped through the cordon line to get a picture. The guard turned, went to ready arms (diagonally holding the rifle from lower right to upper left) and loudly, firmly announced, “visitors are required to remain outside the cordon at all times.” That was all it took. The young lady was behind the cordon before the guard stopped speaking.