Memorials

Just wrapping up my trip to D.C. with some quality time with Biggest Guy. We spent the day wandering around D.C., hit the National Gallery (I got to show him and his friend Hugh the three Cornell boxes there) and walked much of the Mall.

We saw the Vietnam War memorial – moving, effective, powerful – as compared to the World War II memorial – which depressingly does look a lot more like it belongs in Albert Speer’s Nazi capital of Germania than in ours.The Vietnam War memorial works in large part because it is dignified, and more important it is interactive. I stopped and watched the crowd as they walked the wall, stopped and touched names, took pencil rubbings, and left and read small notes and offerings. I read many of the notes left at the foot of the wall today. They ranged from the personal and gripping to the broadly political and occasionally emotionally erratic. Somehow, I can’t imagine the wall without them.

The World War II memorial – a circle of pylons around a sterile central fountain – encouraged no such involvement. The garish wreaths, and the martial eagles holding the banners at the entrances, left me imagining how Leni Riefenstahl would have photographed them. I can’t imagine another response to this kind of iconic imagery.

I’m grateful to the veterans of World War II – my father included.

They deserve better.

10 thoughts on “Memorials”

  1. I didn’t have the same reaction as you when I saw the WW 2 Memorial for the first time, but your comments reminded of one the controversy that erupted a few years ago when the contract to build the memorial was awarded…..

    It seems that the company that was the general contractor for the construction of the monument was the subsidiary of a German conglomerate.

    If that’s not the defintio of irony I don’t know what is.

  2. Consider this: the WW2 memorial does fit many of the ideas re: what a memorial ought to be at the time of that war. That is to say, it fits with its era. And to my mind, that’s the way it ought to be.

    You’re not from that era, and there’s a bit of a chasm between those eras’ values and approaches and the era that shaped you, so it feels a bit odd to you. In fact, it feels odd in some of the ways German stuff at the time (which shares the era but adds an over the top “socialist realism” type element) does to you, hence the felt parallel. But that doesn’t make it comparable.

    Kind of like the Chinese neighbour who thanked my brother for bringing over the mail one day, and apologized for not recognizing him because all white people looked alike to him.

    Recall – the Vietnam memorial itself was intensely controversial at the time, because it departed so far from the classic image of what a memorial ought to be. But it turned out to be a perfect match for its era. That is why it functions as such an excellent memorial, and proves itself to have been exactly the right choice.

  3. As I recall, one of the controversies involving the Wall was that the design chosen was rendered by a woman of asian background. Some of the veterans and families felt that was inappropriate in that our enemy in the Vietnam war had such a background. I hope that one of the elements in making the choice was a rejection of race as an element – and rejection of any suspicion that race is the reason behind a war, hopefully.

  4. Joe – First, I don’t necessarily agree with the notion that the memorial ‘fits’ with the 1940’s image of what memorials ought to be. I think that there were a number of WPA – era memorials that managed to be of a scale and style that didn’t evoke the kind of reaction this one did in me (There’s a WPA-era statue for WWI and II vets at the VA in Los Angeles, for example).

    I recall the conflict over the Wall when it was built, and the single strongest argument was that it wasn’t figurative and that it wasn’t heroic. I don’t (fortunately, I’d be disgusted) remember opposition because the designer was Asian (as opposed to that the designer was a ‘nobody’).

    A.L.

  5. AL:
    Actually, I’m not sure the asian aspect made it into the papers. Just so happens that some one who worked to organize the foundation to put up the Wall was a high school classmate of mine, so I heard things that didn’t go into press releases.

  6. Joe, I think you’re half right. The problem with the WWII memorial is that it’s so fussy and stuffed with iconic stuff that it’s overwhelming. I have no problem with martial eagles per se–we’re remembering martial sacrifice and celebrating martial heroism–but the sheer volume of symbols is beyond what you can comfortably appreciate. Better a single evocative icon or image–think Iwo Jima, or the firefighters and flag on 9/11, or the men in ponchos at Korea, or simply a used Sherman tank, or even some kind of eagle with arrows, than a hundred things that tell no story at all.

    On the other hand, I think the little notes and whatnot left behind at Vietnam are indeed products of their era–an era which was perhaps more focused on the individual, and on the personal suffering that war causes than on the greater cause. I would find them out of place at a WWII memorial, where I would expect mourners to clearly understand the necessity of the sacrifice in a way that we don’t with Vietnam.

    Perhaps the difference is between engaging (as a proper WWII memorial would be, but this one isn’t) and interactive (Vietnam)

    There are many fine examples of military memorials built shortly after the war which are obviously “of their time” but much more effective than this one.

  7. OK, this one got me thinking. You know I was there in April, and did the same memorials with my boys. I enjoyed the WW2 Memorial. Both of my grandparents served, and I am particularly connected to my paternal grandfather’s experience, as he shared more with me as he approached death.

    I had heard a lot of complaint about this Memorial, but I kind of liked the feel of it myself, it did feel rather European was one of my thoughts. However, looking back, I can see something in what you are saying. People were enjoying themselves around the fountain, it was more spectacle than respect or memorial. The Vietnam Wall, on the other hand, caused even my seven year old to exclaim by the end of it, when he heard people (tourists) coming the other way in the line laughing and joking loudly, “mom, that’s not really appropriate here I don’t feel.” Seeing all of those names and the mementos, even a seven year old could grasp what it really meant.

    The WW2 Memorial just doesn’t give you that, and in thinking more on it, that’s a shame when you consider the scope and what was given up.

  8. It’s funny you mention the Nazi-esque look. I thought it looked like WPA era works(which tend to evoke Albert Speer’s designs to my mind), which is sort of appropriate to the era. FDR would feel at home here.

    I do agree with Kerry that it seemed like more of a place to hang out rather than a solemn, introspective memorial.

  9. As to WPA visit the Providence Zoo, that is WPA. And in Tennessee/Missisppi there were a lot of moving city folks to the country that were lots of mixed feelings and results. Nobody died.

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