I admit that I haven't read much about the new memorial to WWII vets. Then I read the following column by Charles Krauthammer (sorry bukko - I know you don't like him - see his biography to follow).
They deserve better
Charles Krauthammer (archive)
May 28, 2004
WASHINGTON -- Those of us who publicly opposed placing the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington argued that doing so was a prescription for failure. If the memorial were to respect the sight lines, symmetries and elegance of the Mall, it would be too small to do justice to the grandeur of the Second World War. And if the memorial were large enough to reflect the majesty of its subject, it would overpower and ruin the delicate harmonies of the Mall.
The World War II Memorial has just opened, and it is indeed a failure. The good news is that the Mall survives. The bad news is that for all its attempted monumentality, the memorial is deeply inadequate -- a busy vacuity, hollow to the core.
The World War II Memorial is a parenthesis, quite literally so -- two semicircular assemblies of pillars cupping the Rainbow Pool on the invisible axis that connects the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.
The pool, with its fountains, makes a nice space for tourists and toddlers to dip their feet on a hot summer's day. But as a remembrance of the most momentous event of the 20th century, it is a disaster.
Where does one start? The memorial's major feature -- 56 granite pillars 17 feet high, adorned with wreaths and marked with the names of the states and U.S. territories -- is a conception of staggering banality. One descends the main entry to the monument and the pillar to the left is marked American Samoa; on the right, the Virgin Islands.
What do the states have to do with World War II? What great chapter of that struggle was written by the Virgin Islands (or Kentucky, for that matter)?
The Civil War was very much a war of states. Its battles were defined by state militias that fought and died as units. But World War II was precisely the opposite. Its glory was its transcendence of geography -- and class and ethnicity. Its fighting units mixed young men from every corner of America. Your classic World War II movie features the now-cliched platoon of the Polish millworker from Chicago, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, the Appalachian woodsman and the Iowa farm boy bonding and fighting and dying for each other as a band of brothers.
And yet it is these gigantic soulless pillars, each mutely and meaninglessly representing a state or territory, that define this memorial. What in God's name were they thinking? Did not one commission that passed on this project ask: ``Why states?''
But that is just the beginning of the banality. The monument is strewn with quotations inscribed in stone, meant to inspire. You descend into the parenthesis from street level, and the first large stone panel to greet you on your right reads ``Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women ... this was a people's war, and everyone was in it.''
``Stepped up''? ``Everyone was in it''? Is this the best we can do? Are we not embarrassed to put such pedestrian prose hard by the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial just a few hundred yards down the Reflecting Pool?
And then, alas, the ultimate banality. The centerpiece of the monument is a low curved wall, closing the top of the parenthesis, as it were, straddling the central axis of the Mall and adorned with 4,000 gold stars.
The gold star, of course, was given to those who had lost a son in the war. Why 4,000 stars? To represent the more than 400,000 American dead: each star represents a hundred.
Why a hundred? Did they die in units of a hundred? Did they fight as centurions? The number is entirely arbitrary, a way to get the stars to fit the wall.
Four thousand stars are both too few and too many. Too few to represent the sheer mass, the unbearable weight of 400,000 dead. And too many -- and too abstract -- to represent the suffering of the mother of a single fallen hero.
This wall has the feel of a bureaucratic compromise between commemorating every individual (as does the Vietnam Memorial) and representing loss as a whole (as do tombs of the unknown soldier). The solution -- take 400,000 and divide it by 100 -- is nothing but sheer imaginative laziness.
I feel sorry for the old veterans who came with war bride and grandchildren to make their pilgrimage to the monument's opening this Memorial Day weekend. They deserve to be celebrated. They deserve their memorial. And they will no doubt celebrate this one because it is all that they have. They will lend it the dignity and power of their own experience. But once again, it is they who will have done the work. They should not have to. They deserve better, far better.
©2004 Washington Post Writers Group
(What an appropriate name: "Kraut" and "Hammer." It's the most fitting handle since "Strangelove." He is the living incarnation of that fictional mad doctor. Krauthammer is an actual MD who's been in a wheelchair longterm due to disability. While I give him credit for making it through med school and into practice with this handicap, I fault him for being a bitter, splenetic man. He actually worked for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, but somewhere in the Reagan years he turned mean. When I've seen him on TV, he looks like he suffers from chronic pain. I think that's put some acid in his soul.)
short bio -
Charles Krauthammer, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, writes a nationally syndicated editorial page column for The Washington Post Writers Group. Krauthammer, also winner of the 1984 National Magazine Award for essays, began writing the weekly column for The Washington Post in January 1985. It now appears in more than 100 newspapers.
The Pulitzer came in his first full year of syndication. The award cited Krauthammer for his insightful columns on national issues. Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, called Krauthammer's column "independent and hard to peg politically. It's a very tough column. There's no 'trendy' in it. You never know what is going to happen next."
An apt description of Krauthammer is "a columnist widely known as conservative but unorthodox to the core." But a column, notes Krauthammer, is not just political philosophy.
"Much of it has to do with common sense. One of my many missions is putting up a first-line defense against the various enthusiasms of the age - everything from the nuclear freeze to identity politics to the 'recovered memory' movement - which tend to roll over the culture at regular intervals." Krauthammer was born in New York City and raised in Montreal. He was educated at McGill University, majoring in political science and economics, Oxford University (Commonwealth Scholar in Politics) and Harvard (M.D. in 1975). He practiced medicine for three years as a resident and then chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In 1978, he quit medical practice, came to Washington to direct planning in psychiatric research for the Carter administration, and began contributing articles to The New Republic. During the presidential campaign of 1980, he served as a speech writer to Vice President Walter Mondale. He joined The New Republic as a writer and editor in 1980. He also writes essays for Time and the Weekly Standard. In 1997, the Washingtonian magazine named him among the top 50 most influential journalists in the national press corps.
Krauthammer lives in suburban Washington with his wife Robyn, an artist, and their son.
We went to D.C. a few weeks ago and saw the memorial (without water filling the pool and fountains). I thought it was nice, for the most part. However, the other memorials, Vietnam and Korean, are much more moving and seem to have more thought and emotion put into their design.
I have to admit that I did not "get" the pillars with the state names, just as the writer of the article did not. Wasn't real sure what that was supposed to be about, but I also did not get one of the pamphlets that were available to provide info on the design.
Here's a picture that shows one of the ends, with some of the state pillars.
Last edit by LeesieBug on May 28, '04