The WWII Memorial: Inadequate and Out of Place (The Washington Post)

By Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post; Op-ed

Some causes are hopeless and yet still worth pursuing to the bitter end. And the bitter end comes soon for those who have for years opposed the ill-conceived World War II memorial. On Sept. 7, the National Capital Planning Commission, the last official body to rule, will undoubtedly vote to make it a fact.

After that, there will be lawsuits. One will claim that the site on which the memorial is to be established is, according to the National Park Service’s own studies, an integral part of the Lincoln Memorial and thus presumably inviolable.

This and the other suits will prove nothing more than delaying tactics–although we should cherish the few extra months they will provide before the memorial ruptures the harmony of the Mall.

How so? Because of the site. The proposed site is the Rainbow Pool, just beyond the Reflecting Pool that sits at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. It is a magnificent space that offers a pristine vista stretching across the Mall from Lincoln to the Washington Monument to the Capitol.

The World War II memorial is to be erected directly in that line of sight. It will mar forever one of the most glorious spaces of any capital on the planet, a vast bucolic promenade stretching two miles from shrine to shrine.

The central problem remains today what it always has been: the disproportion in scale between the site, a modest patch of green, and the event, the greatest in American history since the Civil War. Anything modest enough to fit the site and not disrupt its subtle harmonies cannot do justice to the majesty of America’s struggle in the Second World War. Yet anything large enough to match the grandeur of World War II will necessarily dwarf and crush the site.

It is because of that contradiction that the late Rick Hart, who sculpted the “Ex Nihilo” tympanum at the National Cathedral and the figures at the Vietnam Memorial, proposed an alternative: a grand monument to be erected directly across the Potomac from the Mall on an unused circle at the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. The circle could be the site of a triumphal arch or some other unapologetically bold architectural element, and the surrounding area could house a museum, making the memorial a place not just for contemplation but for education of future generations.

The site on the Mall originally had an underground museum, too. But it had to be scrapped because its size and weight, and the resulting traffic and congestion, would have grossly violated the serenity of the Mall.

The memorial was then accordingly and repeatedly scaled down. Until we now have what? A pool with an as yet unknown architectural element in the center, surrounded by 17-foot-high granite columns with wreaths. There will be 56 of these, representing the states and the territories.

In the desperate search for some subdued element, the plan chooses to represent states. What in God’s name does this have to do with the Second World War? States? The Civil War was about states. Half the country is littered with monuments to the 54th Massachusetts or the 20th Maine or the 2nd Texas.

In the 1860s, Americans fought in state militias as representatives of their states. But the 1940s? The great war was forged from the contributions of farm boys and physicists, Brahmins and working men, women and blacks, immigrants and industrialists.

These were the sinews of war. If there were a museum, as there would be at a more suitable site, these would be the subject of study and exposition. (How the war, for example, was an incubator for the later emancipation of women and African Americans.) States? Have you ever read a paper titled “Idaho and the Second World War?”

There will be other elements added. A stone wall making it nearly impossible to walk directly east-west across the Mall. Two arches representing the Atlantic and Pacific fronts, rising a monstrous 41 feet above the Mall, dwarfing everything around. And more.

No matter. It will be built. And we will come. In reverence. We will go there to pay homage to the generation that waged the most monumental, most unequivocally righteous struggle in history. But we will feel a tinge of sorrow that, because of its location, their memorial necessarily could not rise to adequately represent the grandeur of their achievement.

They did, after all, save the world. They deserve better.