A Memorial, Yes, But What About Its Message (The Washington Post)

By Marc Fisher, The Washington Post

Let’s not kid ourselves: No matter how inappropriate the site, no matter how uninspired the design, the World War II memorial proposed for the centerline of the Mall is going to be built. When the president wants the groundbreaking to happen before he leaves office, and much of Congress falls into line, and Bob Dole criss-crosses the nation drumming up the building fund, and the District’s arts and planning elite rubber-stamps the proposal, this baby’s on the fast track.

If you love the view from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, if you cherish the unobstructed walk between the two, get your fill now, because it’s history.

That was plain as day at this week’s meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, which Chairman J. Carter Brown, Washington’s grand vizier of taste, opened with a rambling discourse on the history of the Mall and its discontents.

Brown’s preamble concluded that “tucking a World War II memorial away in the woods”–at the Constitution Gardens site originally approved by the memorial’s sponsors and the National Capital Planning Commission–“would not relate to our fundamental ideas.” Mr. Brown hath spoken; any other testimony was beside the point.

Yes, two more approvals are needed, and yes, the opponents may yet go to court to halt the project. This, however, is the time not to dwell on the death twitches of the opposition, but to examine just what damage this memorial will do, and why this is happening.

All day, proponents of the memorial praised it for being “unobtrusive,” “respectful of its surroundings,” and–get this, mentioned by four speakers–“barely visible” from the Lincoln Memorial. Do you detect a certain shyness?

Architect Friedrich St. Florian’s sterile design for the World War II memorial says volumes about this country and its deflated sense of purpose in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“By nature, I am a cautious person,” St. Florian said.

And so we have a memorial that tries to compensate for its lack of boldness and purpose with an excessively busy design that includes arches, pillars, ramps, wreaths, bronze columns, hanging sculptures, wall sculptures, even a sculpture in water, tall fountains, arcing fountains, a field of stars, light shows, ceremonial walkways–all smack in the center of the Mall.

The only thing missing is what makes our best memorials keepers: the power of a bold message and the courage to challenge our complacency.

Lincoln, Jefferson, Vietnam and FDR–our best memorials fill us with pride, but far more important, they push us to do and be better. They squarely face the great divides of American history, and with rigorous honesty, they question our commitment to this democratic experiment.

Lincoln, in all its grandeur, asks the most intimate question, Why are we together? Jefferson asks us to consider the worth of each man. FDR asks, What is freedom? And Vietnam courageously confronts us with what we have done and dares us to say we are better off for it.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, the wise veteran from Hawaii, favors this World War II plan, which he finds “simple, solemn and dignified.” But listen to what he said about the process of choosing the site and design, a process that has gone on longer than the war it commemorates: “These debates over memorials have really been debates about ourselves.”

A World War II memorial should reach beyond simple homage to the veterans and honor their sacrifice with meaning. The veterans of this great war have the unique moral standing to challenge Americans to decide our purpose and for what we will fight.

This memorial instead is all eagles, stars and stone, an exercise in nostalgia that says only, “Hooray for us,” a sign of our incapacity to imagine the lives of people beyond ourselves.

Garry Wills once wrote, “What we choose to remember in stone tells us who we are, or want to be.”

We want to be more than this. We are more than this. Aren’t we?