TCS Daily

If Memory Serves...

By James Pinkerton - May 6, 2004 12:00 AM

I don't know about you, but I have always thought that war memorials should be above ground. That's why I like the new World War Two Memorial in Washington DC more than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which sits just few hundred yards away further west along the National Mall. And even better is the defiantly upright Marine Corps Memorial, just across the Potomac River, next to Arlington National Cemetery.

A war memorial should serve two purposes: first, it should properly commemorate those who fought; second, it should be, in effect, a temple for the encouragement of civic virtue and patriotic sacrifice in the future. A perfect -- and perhaps the oldest -- monument to both purposes is the mountain fortress Masada; Israeli Defense Force officers travel to that battlesite for their commissioning, in part to remember the courage of Jewish warriors 2000 years ago, in part to solemnize their "never again" obligation.

Once upon a time, the standard for military monuments was that they must be stirring. The Romans, for example, built triumphal arches all across their empire; these served as psychic rewards for conquerors and also as psychic enticements for future conquerors.

Two millennia later, little had changed in martial memorializing. The Arche de Triomphe in Paris, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz, was completed in 1836. In the intervening decades, of course, Napoleon had met his Waterloo and died in defeat and exile, but the French, who had gained nothing from their former emperor's vainglorious campaigns, finished his grandiose edifice anyway.

In the United States, the dominant ethos of the young Republic was anti-imperial, and so triumphal arches were out. However, Americans never neglected the need to nurture the Tree of Liberty with the remembered blood of heroes. No Hoosier hero of the Civil War, for example, could ask for a more magnificent shrine than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, dedicated in 1902.

Other countries have had even bigger ideas about remembering victories. The fiercely amazonian statue on the heights overlooking Stalingrad -- today's Volgograd -- is visible for miles, just as the Red Army's epic 1943 victory there over the Nazi Wehrmacht will be recalled for eons. The image of a brave and defiant Mother Russia urging her children on to victory and vengeance may seem un-p.c. to many, but war itself is un-p.c. Yet if you're going to fight, you might as well win -- and this woman and her terrible swift sword are pointing Russians toward winning.

The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington is similarly realistic and rousing. The Felix de Weldon statue recreates the flag-raising on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945. Even though a nearby plaque notes that three of the six Marines depicted were subsequently killed on that Pacific Island, it's hard to think of a more memorable war image -- or a better recruiting tool for the Marines.

One not-so-small virtue of the Marine Memorial, by the way, is that it honors all the many battles of the Corps. After all, a grateful country should lionize the valor and sacrifice of its children, in combats obscure, as well as famous -- and in defeats, as well as victories. Thus triumphs, such as Belleau Wood in World War One, are remembered alongside defeats, such as Lebanon in the early 80s. All are chiseled in egalitarian gold letters along the statue's octagonal plinth; this year will mark 225 years of Semper Fi.

The Marine Memorial was dedicated in 1954. Then came Vietnam. The Indochina conflict is represented by more gold letters on the Marine Memorial, but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visible from the Arlington site, is unique among American battle monuments in its dark defeatism. Of course it is -- it was intended that way. Here's the way the young architect Maya Lin described her winning design in March 1981:

Walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth [emphasis added], a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead. Walking into this grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial's walls. These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.

Which is to say, "The Wall" was intended as a tombstone -- or, more precisely, a cenotaph, which is a marker for a body that rests somewhere else. Don't take my word for it; here's Lin quoted on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial home page: "This memorial is for those who have died, and for us to remember them." The Vietnam memorial was extremely controversial around the time of its dedication in 1982, but it grew in popularity, as families and veterans made a rite of touching the names of loved ones and comrades. Cemeteries are popular for the same reason, but war memorials are supposed to be more than just "rifts in the earth"; they are forward-looking, as well as backward-looking.

The best that can be said about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that it is accurate. The US lost the war. And "The Wall" reflects that defeat, as well as the defeatism that eddied around the fall of Saigon. To be sure, the Vietnam Memorial is beautiful in its lachrymose starkness, but so is Mozart's Requiem Mass--and one never uses that dirge of a piece, composed in 1791, the year Amadeus died, as a fight song.

In 1984, as a grudging sop to the 2.64 million Americans who fought in Vietnam and came back alive, the Artistic Industrial Complex allowed the placement of a Frederick Hart statue facing the Wall. But given this placement of the statues, it was said of the three male figures, "They are looking for their names." In other words, they were KIA's, too.

But of the actual history of the Vietnam War, one learns nothing from the memorial. The message from the mute marble is black death, that's all. And while that anti-heroic expression fits the mood of the Aesthetic Elite, the Wall fails as a rallying point for military service on behalf of the Republic.

But in this dynamic culture, the wheel of the Zeitgeist is always rotating. In the two decades since the Vietnam Memorial controversy, the 40th and 50th anniversaries of D-Day became national and international moments. Closer to home, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation became a best-seller, and "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" became revered films.

And so for boosters of civic duty, the World War Two Memorial is a satisfying return to past standards of inspirational memorial-building. It isn't as vertically spectacular as it might have been, but given its position on the Mall, it was undeniably important not to block the sightline between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

Nonetheless, the Memorial celebrates the words and deeds of heroes, approvingly quoting such legends as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, remembering battles as far apart as Anzio and Attu.

Not to be missed by a visitor are the pavilions, one for the Atlantic war, one for the Pacific war. Inside each pavilion, four huge eagles hold ribbons in their beaks; those ribbons, in turn, hold aloft a laurel wreath. And underneath, on the floor of both pavilions, is a relief-image of the goddess of victory, holding the broken sword of the defeated enemy, one triumphant foot on the foe's martial helmet. Surrounding her image are the words, "Victory on Land. Victory at Sea. Victory in the Air." Victory, what a concept. It's been a long time since an American monument was so frank about the virtue of winning.

A few critics denounced the boldly assertive design. It was "watered down Albert Speer," snapped The New Yorker. It was "fascist" heckled the National Committee to Save Our Mall. To be sure, the World War Two memorial makes use of pillars and vistas in a way that Hitler and his favorite architect loved. But Speer & Co. had gotten their ideas from the Greeks and the Romans. Was this huge portion of our Western Civilization to be junked just because evil people liked it, too? In fact, the World War Two Memorial evokes the same neo-classical design as most buildings in the ceremonial core of Washington DC, from the Federal Trade Commission to the Federal Reserve Board. The late J. Carter Brown, chairman of the US Fine Arts Commission when the key decisions about the World War Two memorial were made, insisted, correctly, that the design was in keeping with that architectural tradition, and "not just this year's skirt length."

He was exactly right. Moreover, Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University, editor of The Mall in Washington 1791-1991, dismisses the "fascist" argument in one word: "foolish." If the World War Two Memorial is fascist, he argues, then so is the harmlessly neoclassical Folger Shakespeare Library.

To be sure, just as the Zeitgeistial wheel has turned in the last few years, so it will surely turn again. Some day, there will be an Iraq War Memorial. And if the current trend is any guide, such a memorial might well be sunk - literally -- in the mire of ambivalence.

Which serves as a final point to make about war memorials. Yes, they should celebrate sacrifice. But at the same time, those making the sacrifice should always be assured that those who send them into sacrifice -- the nation's political leadership -- have adequately planned the military mission, from its legitimate beginning to its successful ending. As we learned in Vietnam, low statecraft mocks the highest valor. And so decisions that put the US on the road to military failure can also put Americans in a black mood. And as we have seen, that black spirit -- fleeting as it might be -- can find its mournful expression in permanently anti-heroic monuments.

James Pinkerton recently wrote for TCS about the re-Jeffersonization of America.


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