A War Memorial to End All Memorials (Portland Oregonian)

By Susan Nielsen, Portland Oregonian

The Greatest Generation is about to get the Worst Memorial. You may think America has monuments galore for World War II. From the sacred graveyard of battleships in Pearl Harbor to the stunning Iwo Jima memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery, the country well chronicles its gratitude toward the war’s veterans.

But it hasn’t yet memorialized the entire war. Only parts of it. And by gum, we cannot rest until the Greatest Generation gets its due. That means concocting the largest, most expensive memorial imaginable. Not something that evokes freedom and honor, mind you. We want something visible from outer space.

This country has been fighting about a proper World War II memorial since 1987, three times longer than it took to beat Hitler. The fight is heating up. In early May, the 11-member planning group that oversees monuments in the nation’s capital voted unanimously to scrap the design (awful) and location (shudder). Congress responded Tuesday with a 400-15 vote in the House to silence all opposition.

If the Senate agrees, construction of the $100 million project could begin immediately and would no longer be subject to judicial or administrative review. That means total exemption from the pesky rules that keep Washington, D.C., from turning into a kitschy necropolis.

No need to belabor the irony of a World War II memorial that can be built only by shutting people up and overriding the democratic process. It is enough simply to marvel at the planned memorial itself.

So, let’s set the scene. The heart of the nation’s capital is called the National Mall.

The center of the Mall is a long rectangle of green with the Capitol building visible at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other and the tall pale obelisk of the Washington Monument in the center.

More than 200 memorials and museums are clustered near the National Mall. But somehow, the open grassy center of the Mall still feels restful and serene. The National Park Service tries to keep it that way. As the Park Service points out, President George Washington commissioned the open space as an “ideal stage for national expressions of remembrance, observations and protest” and as a place for citizens to celebrate nature and culture.

Enter the planned World War II memorial. It is a granite meteor that would land on the grass between Lincoln and the Washington Monument. It is bigger than six football fields and as soulless as a food court.

Although the memorial is supposed to honor veterans, it instead glorifies the military itself: a monument to the Pentagon, designed by Costco.

The design is a sunken stone theater with 56 granite pillars, two 4-story arches and a cacophony of gold stars, oversized eagles and bronze wreaths. In the language of military-monument gobbledygook, the main features are described as balustrades, triumphal archways, laurel wreaths, rampart walls, ceremonial steps and bronze baldacchinos. (A “baldachin” is a “marble or stone structure built over an altar,” apparently.)

Feeling patriotic yet?

The harshest critics say it evokes Nazi architecture. Others morbidly speculate about the memorial’s likely centerpiece. (A gilded Sherman tank? A mushroom cloud?)

Proponents of the memorial are getting cranky about the opposition. To them, opposing the memorial means opposing veterans. Moving the memorial back to nearby Constitution Gardens, the initially approved site, would marginalize veterans. Shrinking the memorial would diminish veterans. And so on.

Worst of all, they’ve got Tom Hanks on their side. It’s hardly a fair fight.

To me, a more fitting memorial would be a farmhouse in the middle of the United States, with the fields half-planted. It would have a factory uniform on the clothesline and an American flag on the porch. Magazines full of advertisements to “Buy War Bonds for the Boys!” would lay strewn on the kitchen table.

A radio for listening to FDR. A Bible by the bedside. Letters home.

But that or anything similar would not feel like a Great Enough honor for the veterans of the Greatest Generation. It would not be big enough, or cost enough. And so we proceed like children grimly determined to buy our parents the most expensive Christmas present. It is not the thought that counts here, but the gift.

We meant to celebrate liberty. We wanted to honor people who showed the kind of valor now relegated to the movies. We somehow got the government-approved version of a good war: sterile, faintly ghastly, larger than life.

We’ll end up with the wrong thing in the wrong place, for all the right reasons.

 

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