Sunday, May 25, 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 today'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.
I had seen pictures, and I was not expecting to be impressed.

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:


-- 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.


Eric Reuter said...

I'll have to respectfully disagree, although I appreciate the thoughtful and thorough analysis of the monument. Given your concerns, do you have ideas about how you'd have designed it?

Your post raises a fundamental question: should memorials be eternal, or should they assume some knowledge on the part of the visitor? Can they be as powerful if the visitor is not familiar with the event/person(s) being memorialized? I was struck by this passage:

"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? "

I found this one of the more valuable parts of the memorial. As someone who has long had an interest in military history, I am pretty steeped in knowledge regarding WWII. Each panel meant something specific to me; I knew what each meant, where it was happening, who was involved. I saw my grandparents in those reliefs.

I realize that today's population knows little about our history, and even less about our military history. Yet memorials that are vague enough to not assume any knowledge quickly become repetitive; the designers of this particular installation must have been challenged to design something eternal yet specific. I felt that the design captured enough detail to present the war as it happened through American eyes, yet not so specific as to become an interpretive display rather than a memorial.

I think the Vietnam memorial works so well partly because its subject is so well-defined: a tragic war, a tragic time, a tragic cost. I suspect there are few people anywhere who remember that time with fondness.

However, WWII is a more complex subject. The tragedy of carnage is balanced with the triumph of freedom and equality. That war was the springboard for many of the best aspects of our world today (and yes, some of the worst). My point is that a balanced look at that period would not be one solely of sadness, but of also of achievement, and so an accurate memorial ought to capture many aspects. I think this is where the triumphal nature of the design comes in, and why I think it's appropriate.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your equally thoughtful comment -- very much appreciated and gave me reason to reconsider at least the panels next time I go to the memorial.


Eric Reuter said...

I'm still would you have designed it? What elements and content would you have felt appropriate?

One other thing; I think the emphasis on Americans over our allies is appropriate, as the memorial is fundamentally meant for American servicepeople. A worldwide WWII monument would be a fascinating thing, but this isn't it.

Neil said...

I admit to no real knowledge or skill to share on the design of monuments. I think the starting point in any design is to recognize that a monument is a message, and then to consider what it is that you want to convey.

The Lincoln Memorial is beautiful, and by framing his figure in his inspiring words, it conveys to the visitor a moving and thought-provoking sense of who he was, and who we are as Americans.

The new FDR Memorial is a very effective tribute and reminder of the Depression and the war, and how a President and nation responded to these challenges - and to the challenges of securing the peace in the age of the atom bomb.

This country was reluctant to get into the war, and celebrated the peace that followed. The image I would love to have seen in the memorial - perhaps given a prominent place in the fountain - would be the iconic image of a sailor kissing a young woman in Times Square. I'd have liked the Memorial more if it had emphasized our love of peace as much as it celebrated victory.

I disagree with you about the proper focus of the Memorial - as designed it does not focus on American war veterans but rather on the notion of victory. Even where it recognizes those who died fighting that war, it does so in a way that fails to focus on people. The stars representing 400,000 killed in action is coldly symbolic - contrast that with the Korean and Vietnam war memorials (one featuring the figures of soldiers and the other listing the individual names of the dead). The WWII Memorial includes the panels along the stairs that seek to make this human connection, but I was not impressed with their effect, and in terms of scale, the panels are small relative to the main spacial and visual impact of the rest of the Memorial.

We also disagree about the question of our allies - how much the Memorial should recognize that the victory was one we shared with Britain and the Soviet Union, as well as other nations. At the end of this war, the US stood clearly as the leading nation of the world and chose to use that leadership position to establish the United Nations and NATO and to support the economic recovery of Western Europe. The Memorial ought to honor our shared victory and that spirit of global leadership, but instead it reflects the myopic unilateralism and failed vision of the current administration.

In the second paragraph of your first comment, you suggest that I lack sufficient knowledge to appreciate the Memorial - that I am not familiar with the event/person being memorialized. I don't know how you came to that conclusion, but I suspect that it refects an assumption on your part that a reasonably well-informed person could not disagree with your evaluation of the Memorial.

You might want to reconsider that line of thinking. The design of memorials is almost always a source of controversy, as we have seen with New York City's attemmpt to memorialize 9/11 in lower Manhattan, and in the recent tussle over the statue of Dr King.

These controversies are not mainly the result of a lack of knowledge on the part of some of the critics, but seem rather to flow from legitimate disagreements about preferences of taste and the messages implied by various designs. As I recall, even the Vietnam Memorial, which is a deeply moving and starkly beautiful monument, was the subject of intense criticism at the outset.

My father served in the Navy towards the end of the war. He thinks the Memorial is fine, and his only beef seems to be that it took too long. He and I agree on that - sixty years was too long to wait.

As you suggest in your first comment, memorials are designed for posterity and the true test of this memorial may be how people see it 50 years from now.

If we are still in Iraq in 2058, as Mr McCain suggests we may be, then I suppose the WWII Memorial will be seen through that prism as a misguided monument to unilateral militarism and the glorification of war.

Let's hope that's not the case.


Eric Reuter said...


I really like your suggestion of the Times Square couple as a centerpiece; it captures nicely the alternative theme you're advocating. Through that lens, I see your point more clearly.

As for knowledge leading to appreciation, I took your initial post to mean that you weren't familiar with the subject matter on the panels. I can see how your words could also imply that you did understand them, and just didn't find them meaningful. I'm not intentionally making any assumptions about whether an "informed" person would agree with me, but rather suggesting that knowledge generally leads to deeper appreciation regardless of opinion. For example, a visitor to Gettysburg who knows nothing about the battle might well be moved, but will not appreciate the location in the same way as someone who is familiar with the location and its history. A knowledgeable pacifist and a knowledgeable hawk can both be moved by such a location or monument in ways that an "innocent" could not, even if the conclusions are different.

The mention of 9/11 is interesting. I find the current rebuilding plans distateful, as I think they reflect Bush's "go shopping" mentality far more than any real sorrow, tragedy, or sacrifice. My preferred vision for the site (having visited it three times, including while still smoking), was to leave it as a hole, figuratively and literally. Allow that gaping wound in the skyline and the priceless real estate to remain and to rest, in remembrance of some things that can't be rebuilt or forgotten.

Were I to be consistent in my views on monuments, I would have to reconcile that opinion with my defense of the more martial WWII design, and I'm not sure I can, at least within the confines of a short debate online that I can't justify spending too much more time on. I think I still come back to the idea that memorials should reflect the balance of tragedy and hope that their subjects created. 9/11, Vietnam...these are pure tragedies and are best remembered by monuments that leave us empty. WWII was tragedy overcome by hope, and is best remembered by a memorial that captures that hope. Your vision of a more peaceful monument would indeed capture that in a different way than the current design, and I see its value.

Thanks for an interesting discussion,


Neil said...


I think you've moved on, but I hope you'll stop by again. I enjoyed the discussion. I'm happy to say I misjudged your comments in your first comment - clearly you did not mean what it sounded like to me.

Thanks for the chat.


Neil said...


I think you've moved on, but I hope you'll stop by again. I enjoyed the discussion. I'm happy to say I misjudged your comments in your first comment - clearly you did not mean what it sounded like to me.

Thanks for the chat.