Monday, May 26, 2008

How We Choose to Remember

Below, an excerpt of a post from my first blog, dated November 15, 2004, in which I write of a visit to the WW II Memorial with my two sons.

I read in yesterday's NY Times that the State of New Jersey is moving ahead with its own WWII memorial. I hope the Garden State will be inspired to excape from fascist symbols of victory and militarism that plague the WWII Memorial in our nation's capital.


(Photos by Richard Latoff)

Jim, Dan and I headed over to the Mall to see the WWII Memorial. None of us had been to see the new monument, and it was a cool, pretty day in DC, so it seemed like the thing to do with our afternoon.

From the images, I had formed an impression of the Memorial as a boring, cold, and stony throwback to Third Reich triumphalism. In person, the impression was even stronger.

Perhaps on a warmer day, the effect would have softened somewhat, but on Saturday the fountains seemed to spew ice-water. All around people milled about aimlessly in the emptiness of the space around the pool at the center of the Memorial.

The unifority of the columns surrounding the space and the laurel wreaths emphasized a militarism that was reinforced by some of the texts chosen to be carved in a few places in the Memorial -- one by General Marshall was striking in its tone -- it seems unfair to a man whose vision and leadership in the post-war period was credited with a swift and generous rebuilding effort in Europe that his contribution to the Memorial should be this quotation:

WE ARE DETERMINED THAT BEFORE THE SUN SETS ON THIS TERRIBLE STRUGGLE OUR FLAG WILL BE RECOGNIZED THROUGHOUT THE WORLD AS A SYMBOL OF FREEDOM ON THE ONE HAND AND OF OVERWHELMING FORCE ON THE OTHER.

-- General George C. Marshall
There are very few human figures in the Memorial -- these are limited to the bas relief panels lining the entrance walls. The panels include scenes from the war period -- I can't say that they made any impression on me at all. Was I supposed to be moved, or informed? Were they simply meant to be decorative?

At each of two ends of the Memorial stands a pavilion, one dedicated to the vicory in Europe ("Atlantic") and the other to the victory in the Pacific.

Inside each pavilion, and hidden from view from outside the pavilion, are figures of Eagles carrying victory wreaths.

By hiding these figures, the creators of this Memorial ensured that the view from the center of the Memorial is dominated by granite blocks, a pool with fountains, and victory wreaths on the 56 granite pillars.

The absence of any representations of human forms is striking -- the place is lifeless.

There are 56 granite pillars for each of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and three other minor US territories who contributed to the war effort.

Each pillar bears a wreath of victory and the name of the State / Territory it represents.



There is very little mention of our allies here, and the strong impression of a unilateral and triumphal militarism is hard to escape -- perhaps the backdrop of current events affects my perception, but the impression is overpowering.

I wonder what a British visitor would think of this Memorial. There is no doubt that America saved the world from tyranny in Europe and Asia, but we fought alongside many nations and when the war was over, we sought to build the foundation for lasting peace and security through the United Nations and alliances such as NATO.

Today, Germany and Japan are our friends. Where in this Memorial is there any nod to the rest of the world, or to our hopes for the future? The message seems to be "WWII - We kicked ass. Don't Tread on Me, or I'll kick yours too."

There is a pool and a wall with 4,000 gold stars, each one represents 100 Americans who lost their lives in the war.

The gold star was the symbol of family sacrifice in WWII, but today it looks very cold -- the 4,000 stars look like nuts and bolts or some other cookie-cutter stamp.

I looked at those stars and felt a deep sense of disappointment that the lives of all those men and women had been represented with so little feeling.

Perhaps in order to make the Memorial accessible to the WWII generation, the Memorial is set alongside a roadway. Unfortunately, this just contributes to the sense that the Memorial has been jammed into an increasingly crowded space on the Mall. Unlike the Vietnam Memorial, which is so powerfully moving, the overall effect of the WWII Memorial is one of disappointment with the physical monument that we have created.

Our WWII veterans deserve a better Memorial than this.

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posted at 9:00:00 AM by Neil

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