War Party

Memorials, monuments, and the complications of memory


Washington will be hosting a bigger-than-usual Memorial Day party this weekend: Some 800,000 people are expected to swing by the Mall to celebrate the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. The gathering will feature everything you'd expect from a state-sponsored event, from formal story-telling pavilions where vets can share their memories to a squad of 40 professional grief counselors.

A platoon of anger-management counselors might have been appropriate, too: This memorial has made a lot of people mad. Some critics didn't like the design, which they considered heavy and bombastic. But even more critics were unhappy about the siting—the structures take up a lot of famous real estate between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial—because it supposedly ruins forever the perfect monumental vista that, opponents argued, had existed in that part of town.

I don't say these critics are necessarily wrong, but I can't help noting that both Washington's obelisk and Lincoln's temple inspired some serious opposition of their own. The Lincoln Memorial stands on Potomac landfill, and some of Abe's admirers thought that such a site was remote and disrespectful to his memory. George Washington's monument—beset by Know Nothings, who subverted the whole construction process—was allowed to stand half-built for decades; you can still see exactly where construction was interrupted because the facing stones have weathered into contrasting shades. Yet now the relationship of these two memorials to one another (and to the distant Capitol dome) is said to have been perfect.

The fact is, it has long been nearly impossible to achieve consensus about memorializing anybody in Washington: Every proposal is guaranteed to enrage someone. There was opposition to the Jefferson Memorial because it eliminated a little Tidal Basin beach that white locals used (black Washingtonians were barred), and because it meant uprooting some of the famous cherry blossom trees. When the first construction workers turned up in the 1930s to clear the site for Jefferson, they found a group of women who had actually chained themselves to the threatened Japanese trees. (A few years later, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, a gang of axe-wielding locals descended on the trees in an attempt to wreak revenge.)

The design of the recently opened FDR memorial was a matter of debate for nearly 40 years, and there is a good case that memorial authorities would have done better to keep arguing: The sprawling result is fit for a pharaoh. Of course, most people can still recall the bitterness inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; critics charged that Maya Lin's reflective black wall was nothing more than a glorified headstone and a slap in the face to the vets it was supposed to honor. The results have been hard to argue with, however. Since the day it opened to the public, the site has been among the most visited and most emotional places in Washington.

Of course, the Vietnam memorial was built while surviving vets and the families of the dead could still visit it in large numbers; they are the ones who have given it a living meaning well beyond anything the structure's critics or its defenders could have anticipated.

The big, new World War II memorial, on the other hand, is opening some six decades after the end of the war it commemorates. It's as if the federal government had chosen to commemorate World War I in 1976. With so many of the war's participants and their immediate family members gone, and the remaining survivors in their 80s, the memorial is not likely to generate many surprises. Rather, it seems likely to remain all architecture and symbol, like the presidential memorials that dot the capital. That appears to have been the fate of the Korean War memorial, which opened only a few years ago near the Mall; its tableau of weary soldiers has the feel of a debt paid late to those who were sent to fight, though Korean vets may perceive the site quite differently.

Memorials can be risks, as federal monument builders have learned to their regret more than once. The Vietnam memorial was a risk that paid off richly, but others have symbolized deeds and events whose meaning changed as time passed, and some of those memorials have been removed. There used to be a statuary tableau on the Capitol grounds, for example, depicting a white frontiersman in the act of killing a savage-looking Indian who was attacking the pioneer's family. This was a work that went from heroic to distasteful to embarrassing in the course of a few generations, and the tableau long ago disappeared from public view. The passage of time can complicate memory; if it can alter a story as essential to the American character as the Winning of the West, then nothing is immune.

The designers of the new WWII memorial have doubtless taken such lessons into account; it's best to leave out the villains in such things and instead to celebrate heroism, sacrifice, and achievement. Various aspects of World War II have long been controversial; the new war memorial is not intended to be about any of those issues. It is intended to remember the defeat of fascism, and to honor those who brought it about, especially the 500,000 American servicemen and women who were killed in the effort.

Yet even most of Washington's successful memorials have gone through an identifiable cycle. Though they are seemingly constructed for the ages, the ages tend to ignore them. They matter most to the people who participated in the events being memorialized; when those people and their families are dead, the memorials gradually turn into traffic impediments. Washington features a whole bronze cavalry of Civil War generals whose statues have long been ignored by everyone but the pigeons. There's a nearly unknown memorial to the Civil War dead at Arlington that draws almost no attention any longer. A moving memorial to the Navy's dead sits unvisited on a Potomac riverbank.

Indeed, just a few steps from the grand new World War II memorial, half-hidden in a grove of trees, is the city's most forlorn such structure. A small but graceful rotunda, it was built to honor the city's own dead of World War I. It is ignored and is visibly deteriorating, turning slowly into something resembling a classical ruin.

Washington's partygoers this weekend should enjoy themselves. The huge new memorial has its best shot to be a living thing while the war's vets can still take pride in it, and in their own achievements. It won't be long before the place starts turning into stone.