Archive for Saturday, May 29, 2004

WWII memorial holds important message

May 29, 2004


— With this weekend's dedication ceremonies for the new World War II Memorial, visitors to Washington will have their first chance to judge an overdue commemoration of "the good war" -- a fitting tribute even if vexingly flawed.

Those I met there earlier this week welcomed the reminder that our nation was forged in battle and that our freedom has been secured by sacrifice.

Along with the memorials to the wars in Korea and Vietnam that are placed along the edges of the National Mall, this new architectural creation, occupying a central place on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, brings home the fact that the 20th century was dominated by its wars.

The three memorials are very different in concept and in feeling. Maya Lin's Vietnam Wall reduces that divisive struggle to its simplest and most awful legacy: The names of the 58,245 American men and women who died in that struggle. A visitor moves along its angled length, often in shadow, thinking, "My God, how many more were lost? And for what?"

Across the way, the tribute to the veterans of Korea is -- as members of that "forgotten" generation would expect -- modest and straightforward. In its main element, a long line of weary soldiers advances toward the visitor, shoulders sagging with fatigue, anxiety and determination etched on their gray faces. So evocative are the sculptures created by Frank Gaylord that Warren Rudman, the former senator from New Hampshire who fought in Korea, said visiting the memorial stirs powerful emotions in him. "It looks and feels exactly like Korea," he said.

The new World War II Memorial is far larger than the other two, as befits an event that consumed far more lives and changed America and the world in far more fundamental ways. The look is classic -- columns and arches and a central pool, as if the creators hoped that by incorporating more and more architectural elements they could encompass all the significance of that epic struggle.

If that was architect Friedrich St. Florian's goal, it is a failure. A child untutored in history would not know from visiting that World War II was an extension of World War I; that it was brought on by the murderous actions of Adolf Hitler and the equally rabid ambitions of imperial Japan and fascist Italy. Nor would she know that it ended with the development of the atomic bomb.

Inscriptions from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman adorn the inner walls, along with words from Generals Eisenhower, MacArthur and Marshall, Adm. Chester Nimitz and Col. Oveta Culp Hobby, the head of the Women's Army Corps. But their contributions will have to be explained by guides. Many battles are named along the bases of the twin arches, but only the Battle of Midway is singled out for praise; oddly, the words are not those of a Navy commander but of pop author Walter Lord.

The Americans killed in battle are honored by 4,000 gold-plated stars set into a wall -- one for each 100 casualties. The emotional impact does not begin to match that of the names etched into the Vietnam Wall -- and the visitor is given no explanation of the awful math behind the flashy display.

Still, the memorial carries an important message -- and corrects a glaring oversight. Nicolaus Mills, the Sarah Lawrence College professor who has just published a history of the political and bureaucratic struggle to get the memorial built, titled "Their Last Battle," reflects the hopes of its creators. It "enlarges the vision of American history that the Mall conveys," he says, without interrupting the grand vista from Capitol Hill westward to Lincoln's Greek temple.

The clunky language of the inscription on the entrance tablet still manages to capture its significance: "Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the Eighteenth-Century father and the other the Nineteenth-Century preserver of our nation, we honor those Twentieth-Century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: a nation conceived in liberty and justice."

Most of the World War II vets visiting when I did called the memorial "impressive," with many adding that it was "long overdue."

"It took 'em long enough," said Bert Allen, a survivor of 8th Air Force raids over Nazi Germany, adding, "I'm not much on monuments. I'm tired of war -- especially this one we're in now."

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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