Coming from a country with no great military tradition, the visual presence of the military and its infrastructure in other countries, such as France, the UK and the US has always intrigued and somehow unnerved me.

We were in Collioure, in France, a few years ago on holiday. We went for a walk along the coast, just north of the town. Beautiful, beautiful place by the Med. We had to go around a military compound to find the path by the cliffs and when we came back they were doing some kind of training exercise in the yard outside the compound.

We could see it all from the hill above. We sat on a rock and had a good look. One unit of six or seven was trying to make its way around vehicles and other obstacles to get to some ‘target’. Another was trying to stop them. They were even firing their guns, using blanks. The sound was strange, a fake popping sound – but it could be real to me, I’ve never heard an actual weapon being fired outside films and TV. We could see little puffs of smoke from the weapons and a short time later, we’d hear the sound of the firing.

It was all so strange. As Irish, we have been protected from this world reality. Yes, of course we have our army but they only work on peace missions, and have never (as far as I know) been involved in an actual war. They have never had to defend our state from another army (unless you count the IRA, which I don’t). I don’t know and I think I’ve never known an active soldier. I did work with one veteran back in the 70s who had been a soldier in the Congo, but he refused to talk about it. And the presence of our military is so nebulous and absent from every day life as to make it innocuous and almost unreal. We’ve been so lucky.

Imagine my surprise, then, in Dublin Airport, when I heard an announcement at the boarding of a United Airlines gate nearby that military personnel in uniform were asked to come forward to board first – even before first class or business class. Imagine that happening in Ireland. Or imagine an announcement like: ‘would any people who have given thirty years or more of service in education or medicine come forward please to board first.’ Imagine that.

But, or course, there is service and service too – military service means the possibility of laying down your life, literally. And that has to be respected. And, in order for that to be maintained – to attract young men and women to offer up their lives on that particular altar – it must be granted a rarified and elevated status. Cultified, as it were – not in the pejorative modern sense, but in the sense of a religious order. Otherwise, the flow of those young people, and the money necessary to run a huge military enterprise might dry up.

And the priests of the cult (the generals and retired generals in power) also have to find a reason for their lives and choices in life; and they have to promote their religion as best they can. Like the Imams in The MIddle East, or the Cardinals in Rome they want supplicants. The problem is that a military system costs tax dollars and the economic benefits to regions and companies that are linked the production of arms are vast. And armies need wars, or the threats of wars – true or false. False in the case of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, and hence a disastrous war that has now put ISIS on the map. Thanks for that.

Arlington Cemetery, in Washington DC, is spread over 623 acres and is located over the Potomac river from the city centre, nearby to Pentagon City. It is where 430,000 men and women have been buried by the US military – those who have died in conflict, or those who have served in the military, as well as spouses and minor children.

It’s a very moving and visually staggering place. It is also an active graveyard. When we were walking towards the entrance, a car pulled up at the kerb ahead of us. An elderly lady got out, holding a single rose. Two younger women also got out. All three were dressed in black. The young women hugged the older woman. All three wept and comforted each other. We walked past, our heads held low.

A sign at the entrance said there were 28 funerals taking place that day. I wondered if they were of soldiers killed on active duty or retired veterans, but I didn’t ask.

I recalled a podcast I heard last year recounting that these days more US soldiers die from suicide than by the enemy. But the military are reluctant to deal with issues such as depression and bullying. In Israel the problem had become so grave that they stopped allowing soldiers to bring their service weapons home – that was the preferred means of suicide. And when they did that, the numbers were greatly reduced. I wondered if any of the burials that day were of US soldiers who took their own lives or if such people were buried in Arlington Cemetery. I’m not sure why I wondered that.

The place had an air of reverence and respect. The people entering the lobby, even the groups of children (and there were many), were quiet and sombre. The people on the tour bus/trolley were unlike tourists, they had more of a air of pilgrims.

The tour commenced and we gained sight of the white headstones, in neat, regular rows. Row after row, running into hundreds, into thousands. White stones in the ground, surrounded by the neatest greenest grass you ever saw. Rolling hills of them, off into the distance, stone after stone, a body buried under each and every one.

Again what struck me was the sheer scale. All those dead young men and women – mostly men. And the list of wars was also amazing, I’d never heard of many of them. So many of them so senseless. The Vietnam war (called the American war by Vietnamese) being foremost among them.

Later, when walking by the Vietnam War Memorial, near The Lincoln Memorial, we noticed a few people in their sixties, pointing out some names. ‘Sonny’s still missing too,’ a woman said. Imagine that, 40 or more years later. Still missing.

That’s why the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington is so important to the military and to the families of those fallen in war who never came home. And perhaps, too, it’s important for those going into battle; the knowledge that they may never make it home, alive or dead, but that their memory will be honoured and that, at least in some symbolic way, their remains will be guarded down the generations.

Because, at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier in Arlington, a soldier stands guard, as sentinel. An elite, highly trained and carefully chosen soldier. There is a soldier protecting the grave (all the graves of all the fallen who never came home, including Sonny, mentioned above) at all times, day or night, spring, summer, fall and winter. During 9/11 one such soldier stood on guard and heard a plane crash into the Pentagon just miles away and did not shirk or cower or move. Hail, rain or snow, 100 degrees of heat. He stands guard.

And while the ceremony of the changing of the guard is a bit of a palaver (and takes quite a while), the presence of that guard is vital to the cult of the military. And among the hundred of people looking on with us that day, there could have been young women and men thinking: if I join up, somebody will always look after my remains, and they will take that duty seriously and they will never leave my side.

One of the main attractions of Christianity and other religions is that it offers eternal life. In a way the military life does too. If you are buried here, you will live forever in our memory and under our care. If you are lost in battle on some foreign shore, you remains will symbolically be guarded over by our brightest and best. Forever. Eternally.

It’s powerful. I don’t quite understand it but I can feel the purpose and seriousness of it radiating out from the perfect young skin, the stern expression of the officer who oversaw the changing. In the immaculate uniforms, the pristine guns, the shining bayonets. The eyes unseen behind the dark sunglasses (that they have to wear because of the searing light coming out of the marble all around), the metal stud on the heels of their shoes, the sound it made during their slow deliberate march, the brown stains on the concrete from the leather of countless other sentinels, coming and going.

The idea that: we take this seriously, we will never ever leave you alone or leave you behind, alive or dead. All our might (and it is considerable) will be funnelled down to a single purpose: to protect and preserve.

I felt humble and small looking at it all. Like one would feel looking up at stars on a dark country lane, or upon entering a great European cathedral – the vastness of belief and time stretching back and out into forever.

Religion. A belief system held close and dear.

That’s what I felt at Arlington, a religious belief system that is deep in the heart and soul of America.