by Clio Bluestocking | 6/26/2008 06:45:00 PM
Yesterday my parents were in town. They weren't here to see me specifically. Being unrepentant band geeks from high school, they still play in several brass bands of the sort that you hear sounding off the oeuvre of John Philip Sousa (they named their dog, a basset hound, Sousa) at your average patriotic, country fair gatherings. One of these bands had traveled up here as a group to play in some sort of band festival, then they went down to Williamsburg and played at another festival there. Since I was out of town until Sunday (or, rather Monday morning), we didn't get to visit until they were on their way out yesterday.

We met at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which I didn't know existed. Neither did the cab driver, who took me to the Vietnam memorial. "Not the Vietnam memorial," I told him, "the Korean memorial."

"Yes," he said, pointing toward the Wall, "Korean war."

"No," I said, "Vietnam."

This is the third cab driver that has known less about a city than I have. That is the second reason that I don't take cabs. The first is the cost. I can usually walk faster, but I was a bit lost yesterday, and in a bit of a hurry.

We eventually straightened the mess out. He still thinks the Wall is the Korean War memorial. My Human tried to explain to me that an African can't really be expected to know the difference between the two wars. I explained to him that a cab driver doesn't need to know the history that the two memorials represents, but he should know the location of two different landmarks. Am I an Ugly American for thinking that? (The point of this whole story is below the fold.)

Anyway, I met with my parents and we shared horror stories about airlines. I won. Then we talked of Boudreaux, my nephew, and dogs. After about an hour or so, their tour bus took them and the other band geeks to the airport.

Since I was in the Mall for the first time in ages, I decided to take a look around before rushing off home to arrange for the deliver of my new couch. A migraine prevented me from truly sucking of the marrow of the experience, but I did see a few things that caught my eye.

Did you know that there is a World War I memorial? Officially, it is called the District of Columbia World War Memorial. You can find it tucked back amid a little grove of trees on one side of the reflecting pool between the Lincoln and Washington monuments.

The war itself is referred to only as "The World War" or "The Great War for Civilization," which indicates that the monument predates the second world war and the way that the memorialists interpreted that war. The memorial is shaped like a Greek gazebo, and looks like it might have been intended to act as a bandstand or some sort of platform for speakers or gatherings.

Around the base of the monument, you can find the names of the veterans of the war who lived in D.C. I remember when the Vietnam Memorial was first proposed, and the use of the names of the dead was considered bad form at the time. Yet, over here was an example of the names being used a full half century earlier. I've seen smaller memorials in village greens and courthouses all over the country, that use the names of the dead, too.

The World War II memorial is a bit less modest, but then it is the National World War II Memorial, not just the memorial for D.C. residents. Like many of the memorials around the reflecting pool, particularly the newer ones, the thing is a park unto itself. You don't just look at it. You walk into it, and immerse yourself. This method seems to force you to contemplate the events that it memorializes, except that you don't learn a thing about World War II and the men who fought it just from this memorial; or any others in D.C. for that matter.

The design of the World War II memorial is supposed to symbolize the war. Two large arches lie at the furthest points of an oval surrounded by smaller arches or double columns that each support iron wreaths and have the names of each state carved on their bases. In the middle of the oval is a spectacular series of fountains and pools that are supposed to represent the oceans. Or something like that.

The tour guide on my parents' bus told them what everything in the monument is supposed to mean, and it is all very grand and patriotic.

The overall effect, however, is perhaps not what the designers intended. Upon approaching the monument, I could have sworn that I heard the strains of "Deutschland Uber Alles." Yes, the World War II monument, dedicated partially to the men who fought to overthrow fascism and defeat the Third Reich looks very much as if it were designed by Albert Speer. The wreaths, the fountains, the Greco-Roman motif: the whole thing looks like a set for "Triumph of the Will." That could not possibly be what the architects intended, but that is the result.

Then, again, perhaps they might have revealed a bit of an architectural Freudian slip. The effort to commemorate the "Good War" -- not even the veterans of the war, since they are not mentioned, but the war itself -- as something simply and gloriously patriotic conjured the same Roman-inspired images that seems to inspire most other western conceptions of glory and patriotism. This language of design was one in which Speer and Hitler also worked. So, perhaps what is going on here (and, to a much lesser extent, in the World War I design) is a not entirely subconscious expression of a will to conquer that lay behind the Roman empire, the Third Reich, and the American manifest destiny and imperialism that guides the people who work only blocks away from this very monument.

In light of this, the memorials to the less glorious wars that followed World War II more intriguing monuments. Although I did not go to see the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial yesterday (damn migraine), most Americans over the age of 35 are probably familiar with it's design, referred to most commonly as "The Wall." Before I first saw it in 1994, I had assumed from the pictures and descriptions that it was literally a wall of jet-black granite, shaped like a wedge, standing up on the ground. While it is wedge-shaped, the wedge cuts into the side of a hill, forming a sort of half-trench, and the granite lines the wall of this trench. The names of the dead are carved into the granite.

People still leave little tokens to their departed loved ones here, in a marked contrast to the World War I monument on the opposite side of the pool. Few World War I veterans (if any) still survive, and anyone who remembers them as living people are either dead themselves or don't remember the veterans' status as central to their identities. This made me think of a line in an Ani DiFranco song in which she says "100 years, and then your grave is not your own." I think of that song in old cemeteries, too. After about a century, who is alive to remember us and the things we did as something real and alive, not as history? In fifty or so years, the Vietnam memorial will be shrouded in trees, with tourists passing by saying "I wonder what that's all about."

I remember when this monument was proposed, back when I was a teenager. People objected to its references to death, and to the Asian architect. To assuage the critics, a set of statues of soldiers, representing three races, was added to the design. Similarly, the contributions of women to this war had been, as usual, overlooked. So, a memorial to the women was placed nearby, representing all of the traditional feminine virtues.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial architects obviously learned from this because it incorporates elements of the Vietnam memorial design and revision, but with a greater sense of cohesion. Like the Vietnam War memorial, the Korean War memorial has both a granite wall and statues of soldiers, includes images of all sorts of participants in the war, and indicates and some understanding of war as something other than glorious.

The wall in this memorial is made of grey stone and is, in fact, a wall standing on the ground to one side of the site. Instead of names, this wall contains a mural that seems to be carved with a laser and creates a neat little illusion of depth so that you seem to be looking at ghosts within the stone. The mural depicts figures from various branches of the military, different races including Koreans, women, different occupations, different religions, and even graves. In fact, it is perhaps the most inclusive image of any of these wars memorialized in this park.

The statues that stand in front of this wall are all male infantry, but of different races. They are dressed in combat and rain gear, and are placed in a V-formation. Each figure looks about, as if expecting attack at any moment. Some look fearful, some alert, some resolved. These are men at war.

An actual soldier from the war stood nearby, in full dress uniform. His wife held up a camera to take his picture in front of the statues. She teased him, "Do you recognize any of those guys?" He wasn't having any of that. He scanned them, pressed his lips together and posed. "No," he said.

Maybe my migraine was making me too grumpy, but I looked around the mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and thought "this is a really butch place." I liked that these last two memorials to war were attempting to be more inclusive and somber in their memorialization of war. Still you could go to each of these monuments, as well as the ones to the presidents here and nearby, and walk away not knowing a damn thing about them.

Also, despite the efforts of the Vietnam Women's Memorial and some of the images in the Korean War memorial, this space around the reflecting pool is extremely masculine place. It is also an extremely warlike place. Washington, general in the War for Independence and president, has a monument rising at one end of the park. Lincoln, commander-in-chief in the Civil War sits at the other end. In between lie the memorials for four separate conflicts. Are only wars supposed to be commemorated here? I thought of other events that happened here. Battles in civil wars of their own.

I thought of the Bonus Army, of the Poor People's Campaign, and, mostly, of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. If we have memorials to wars, should we not also have memorials to reform movements, events that took place right on that spot where I was standing yesterday?

I went up onto the Lincoln memorial, up to where Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis stood to speak truth in the city of power. There, at the top of the second to last flight of step, you can find a panel on the ground. It says "I Have A Dream, Martin Luther King, Jr., March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." You might miss it if you aren't looking for it. Most people do.

(Cross-posted at Clio Bluestocking Tales, with pictures.)

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Blogger Unknown on 6/26/2008 11:52 PM:

Clio, great to see you over here at last! Sorry about the photos -- you can't embed them in Blogger here, they have to be saved in some sort of photostream or image hosting site.

Your keen observations are a joy to read. One question: do you think Albert Speer's monuments are bad because they suggest honor and glory, or because they represent those ideals for the wrong cause? I've always found Nazi architecture to be quite beautiful.


Blogger Clio Bluestocking on 6/27/2008 12:12 AM:

Thanks for cleaning up the big white space at the end on the front page! Thanks for the compliments, too!

I'm pretty sure that my reaction to Speer's architecture comes from the cause rather than the aesthetic. I can appreciate his ability -- even genius -- as an artist to create a sense of grandeur and spectacle; but the connection with the Nazis will forever cloud my appreciation of his work as anything beautiful.