Tuesday, November 30, 2004



With family in town for Thanksgiving, we went down to Washington, D.C., to see the sights. I've seen the major memorials before, but I actually don't mind seeing them again. If monuments are supposed to spark reflection, they really require multiple visits. The first time you see the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam War Memorial, it is primarily through the viewfinder of a camera, and it is always on-the-way-to yet another memorial. The reflecting pool does most of the reflecting.

The Vietnam War Memorial remains, for me, the most powerful site on the National Mall. It is beautifully and terribly simple. The black marble wall juts into the earth, like a cauterized wound on the land. And if you begin at one end of the wall and walk along the length of it, the face of it steadily grows taller until it reaches an apex in the middle. The effect of this walk is staggering, because the names of the dead proliferate rapidly. At the beginning, there are few enough names that you can read a few here and there. You can fathom the loss of this father, or this brother, or this son, for the grieving family. But by the time you get to the middle, there are so many names, so many lives, in such ghastly profusion, that the words themselves become indistinct, and you suddenly see, in the full face of the wall, your own reflection staring back at you. With your own body abruptly staring you in the face from behind the graven letters, you see how unfathomable is the waste of war, the loss of life.

There is a stark contrast between the effect of that wall and the apparent effect of the relatively new World War II Memorial, which is placed at the opposite end of the reflecting pool from the seated figure of Walt Whitman's lost captain. The wall impresses upon the viewer the incalculable suffering of war, the way one death's ripples join the waves of other deaths until it is futile to flee the tide. But the World War II Memorial, despite its large central fountain and small reflecting pool, conveys nothing of this dark tumult that war always brings in its wake. Rather, the water in the context of the Memorial is more reminiscent of a baptismal font, as though a nation going to war is like going down to the river to pray. War is viewed through the lens of this monument as a regenerative force for good, a way of demonstrating (in the words of George Marshall carved into a pillar) that one nation's flag can represent both freedom and overwhelming force.

The mood, in other words, is celebratory. It is made more so by the fact that hundreds of people mill about in the central area, which is surrounded by fifty Romanesque pillars of the kind you can see in ruins at the Forum in Rome. Each pillar is inscribed with the name of a state and hung with an iron wreath. They alternate between a wreath of oak and a wreath of grain, which symbolize respectively the industrial strength and agricultural abundance of America during the war. According to an online description of the bas-relief panels that line the entrance of the memorial, the purpose of these pictures and sculptures is to "depict the all-out mobilization of America’s agricultural, industrial, military, and human resources that transformed the country into the arsenal of democracy as well as the breadbasket of the world." And congregated between these pillars of power are crowds of people who look happy to be here, in stark contrast to the quiet file of viewers at the wall just a few hundred yards away, who wish they could turn away.

The quietest spot in the memorial is the commemorative wall, where 4,000 gold stars are suspended above a small pool of water, to represent the "more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives." But this wall does not have near the force of the Vietnam wall, because it deliberately makes war fathomable. Had 400,000 stars lined the wall, or 400,000 names, there would be less emotional and physical space for exulting in victory, for praising our collective strength. The ratio of one star for 100 lives abbreviates the costs of war to make room for the glorious benefits of a "win" -- national prosperity, global dominance, a generation of greatness. And even if 400,000 stars or names were there, it would still provide a woefully inept approximation of the some 50,000,000 lives that the war claimed around the world.

A world that could create a memorial with 50,000,000 names carved into a wall would probably become a world without war. As it is, though, our selective memories of selected wars makes it only natural that we select war again and again. The narrative of the World War II Memorial, unlike the message of the Vietnam wall, is that war can be, on balance, good. Even more distressingly, the goodness of the war, according to the monument, is not that it stopped some otherwise unstoppable evil, but that it created an unstoppable juggernaut for freedom. And to tell that story, you have to attenuate the grief, you have to represent lives with featureless stars, you have to make the marble unreflective so that no one sees herself or her son staring back from behind the names of the dead.

Why must war memorials be either like the Vietnam wall or like the World War II memorial? Why do our bastions of public memory see reflection on the unjustifiable toll of war as incompatible with the celebration of the justifiable joy we feel once a war ends? Why can we not name all wars for what they are -- a terrible swath of death and destruction that sweeps away both good and evil? And why can we not be glad that some wars have swept away evils and still conclude that wars are evil nonetheless? As John Quiggin puts it, "It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but [war] is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember." There is not a single crevice in the marble surfaces of the World War II Memorial from which the idea that war is a crime might protrude.

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Collective Improvisation:

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