Here follows some thoughts on the war memorials on the National Mall in Washington D.C., by no means complete or thorough. These monuments are most often experiences by people walking around, by, or through them, and I want this essay to be similarly freehand.
The U.S. didn’t start enshrining its military actions on a national scale until recent decades: the very best of them, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, was opened in 1982. I was still in high school. Lin not only delivered a visually and emotionally powerful design, she recognized the difficulty in adequately commemorating a war that was lost. The anonymity of modern warfare burns beneath the funereal black and simple list of names. Of course, people raised in older traditions felt that a representational element was needed, and women felt the need to remember their sisters who served as well – the latter being justifiable, in my option; the former not so much, but I am not the intended audience.
Let me pause there and go back in time as far as wars are concerned, but forward in regard to monuments.
The National World War 2 Memorial, designed largely by Friederich St. Florian, opened in 2004. Every time I write that I shake my head and double-check my sources. This grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille fantasy of triumphalist architecture comes from the 21st Century? It makes for a nice backdrop for tourist photos, and does sum up the commitment of a nation under attack, but it also serves as a sepulcher for a feeling that has never been repeated: that of the “just war.” This memorial is about the nation and the tides of history. Whereas subsequent memorials are about intimate thoughts, this one is a temple to Victory. The only light-hearted touch is so low-key as to be almost invisible: in two places in the monument, the famous “Kilroy was here” graffito has been engraved, a little human element in a monument more concerned with events than people.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial opened in 1995. It was supervised by Cooper-Lecky Architects, which awkwardly combined a set of statues by Frank Gaylord, a mural wall by Louis Nelson, and architectural elements. Here the story of war changes. The faces of Gaylord’s soldiers reflect fatigue and determination, but the tension in their faces and poses suggests that something else is happening. They are still fighting, waiting for the next attack, trapped in eternal strife. The nobility of war is tinged with futility, as the (to this day) unresolved war still hangs over both Koreas. You can admire Gaylord’s soldiers, but you can’t help but feel sorry for them, too. The mural wall of ghostly faces etched into dark stone, seems unrelated, aloof, too close to Maya Lin’s wall.
The contrast between the innocence of their youth and the weapons of war underscores the poignancy of their sacrifice. There is about them the physical contact and sense of unity that bespeaks the bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war. And yet they are each alone. Their strength and their vulnerability are both evident. Their true heroism lies in these bonds of loyalty in the face of their awareness and their vulnerability.
Their heavy-lidded eyes and casual stances show that these are not men in the midst of combat, but men waiting for the next fight, the next plane out, the end, whatever it brings. There is a sense of defeat greater, I think, than Hart intended. What other nation makes such effort to commemorate a war that was lost?
I find Hart’s old-fashioned approach trite and inadequate next to Maya Lin’s brilliance, but it resonates with veterans; each work supplies something the other does not.
The Vietnam Women’s Memorial opened in 1993. Glenna Goodacre’s statue is consigned to a second-class status, ironically, when you consider how women have been constrained in wartime participation. As most women in the Vietnam war were nurses, suffering is the sole focus of the group. The dying soldier being cared for could easily be one of Hart’s group; the nurse looking skyward is searching for rescue. The horizontality of the composition feels heavy. This completes the transition from war as a noble achievement to one of pain, pain that might outlast the war itself.
Interestingly, this transition from the state to the soldier continues in the design proposed for a national World War 1 memorial, planned for Pershing Park in Washington, instead of on the Mall. (The Mall has a small monument to the District of Columbia’s WWI dead.) Lead designers, architect Joseph Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard, who were announced as the winner last January, have focussed on soldiers, with a wall of images (shades of the Korean monument) and a new sculpture by Howard. Howard’s work is classical, closer to Frederick Hart, which is more suited to the WWI era, but still behind the curve in terms of contemporary design. It’s not surprising that we continue to look to older models when designing monuments: there is a reassurance in the past, something that allows us certainty when we have none. Our feelings as a society toward war have changed profoundly, and will likely continue to change. This focus on the human toll is a good thing, one that requires constant restatement. Who wins or loses might become unimportant over time; the lives damaged or ended are always important.