Monumental Mistake (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

By Paul Greenberg, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Tim Hutchinson, the senior senator from Arkansas, sounds like he’s ready to climb on a bulldozer and start digging up much of the National Mall right now for that overdue memorial to the veterans of the Second World War. The senator’s impatience is understandable. The war has been over for half a century. So he’s pushed through a bill to clear away any remaining administrative or even judicial hurdles in the way. And he’s got George W. to climb aboard the bulldozer, too. The president signed the bill into law Memorial Day.

But impatience is a poor architect. The plans for this monument depict what could be a memorial to almost anything historic. This thing has got arches and pillars and size, but nothing definitive, let alone unique. Its style might be summed up as Federal Stalinist, examples of which already fill the capital. See the Hart and Reagan Office Buildings.

The plans show a memorial that manages to be grandiose but not affecting. You’d think there were already enough grand mediocrities in Washington, let alone in Congress. This latest monument looks like another product of the Albert Speer school of architecture, the guiding aim of which was to erect something that would one day make a magnificent ruin on the unter den Linden.

There are ways to build a memorial on a mall and ways not to. Instead of adorning the space, this Moscow subway station of a monument may only distract from it.

Indeed, the strongest argument for this addition is that it doesn’t distract from its site too much. Which is nice, but that is scarcely sufficient reason to erect a national landmark.

Nor does this design make much use of God’s contributions to every work of art–light and space. Instead of illuminating and elevating, it presses down on the viewer. It sits there like a burden, like an afterthought, like an obligation instead of a freewill offering. However tall it may be, it doesn’t soar. It’s got many a column, but Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s it ain’t.

This memorial-on-the-mall seems more Roman than Greek, more imperial then republican, more generic than personal. There is nothing about it as distinctive and memorable as the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials. Or the Vietnam Memorial. Instead, the plans show nothing more than something large and ordinary that will fit a space on the mall. (Building the $160- million project around a fountain should help; water can cover architectural sins almost as well as ivy.)

Senator Hutchinson, sounding a bit like a car salesman eager to close the deal before we leave the lot, urges us to buy now. It’ll grow on you, he says. “The Vietnam Wall was also controversial before it was built,” he notes, “but now it is a revered place of honor.”

The senator is right about the Vietnam Memorial. It was controversial. Because it said something. Because it affected people strongly, many negatively. It was such a powerful statement that its stark, affecting architecture had to be tackied over with a regular statue here and there to appease conventional taste.

The Vietnam Wall was a monument with the right problem–not how to give it character but how to let its stark character come through unfiltered to a country still unready to make a separate peace with a tragic part of its own history.

It was a great challenge: How elevate a sacrifice all recognized in a cause that even now divides us? Americans prefer their history, like their Westerns, with a happy ending. Vietnam wasn’t.

The architect of the Vietnam monument found a simple, profound way to achieve her goal–by going down, as if into our soul, and then emerging. It was a work of insight and, like so much genius, simple. No one would ever describe it as conventional.

The problem with this proposed monument to the veterans of another and different war is quite the opposite: It is utterly conventional. It could commemorate anything big. It comes too close to the kind of thing the Axis might have built if they’d won the war.

Senator Hutchinson defends the plan in a statement as prosaic and repetitive as the one this monument would make: “The World War II Memorial will come to be received as an appropriate tribute to our World War II veterans.”

Appropriate. Surely no one would ever sum up the power of the Lincoln Memorial, or the grace of the Jefferson Memorial, or the look of the Washington Monument as your plane descends into Washington, or the experience of visiting the Vietnam Wall, in that one, sufficient, dull-gray word: appropriate. Little black dresses are appropriate. Not what ought to be a national memorial and experience.

Yet the principal argument for building this memorial on a fast track is that it will fill an appropriate space, and can be built now–before we lose still more veterans of that terrible conflict. But this monument should also be for the future, for the generations to come. It should convey something more than appropriateness.

A monument to the veterans of the Second World War must not only be built, it must say something–something more than that another space on the mall has been filled. It must say something about the character not only of that decisive worldwide struggle, but of those who fought it through to victory.

Huge arches and towering pillars can commemorate almost anything, and have done just that again and again in the forgettable history of empires that proclaimed themselves great. Something else is called for here. Something different and better–something distinctive, not just appropriate.

This monument needs to invoke the past and shape the future. That’s no small order. It will take time and patience to fill it. Some things, like art and understanding and a sense of history, cannot be rushed. This monument should be worth the wait. Instead, despite all the many years of waiting, it still has the feel of a rush job.

Copyright 2001, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.