Moviegoers brushed aside the unflattering reviews. All told, they parted with $75 million over the weekend to see Pearl Harbor, the summer blockbuster about the surprise Japanese attack on the American fleet in Hawaii and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II. It was the second-largest opening in movie history.Executives at Walt Disney Studios smiled. They spent $135 million to make the part-romance, part-war story. Anyone really surprised at the success? The country seems to grow more fond of The Good War with each passing day. Or each passing book by Stephen Ambrose, the historian who has done more than almost anyone to consecrate the war in the American mind.
Tom Brokaw took his cue from Ambrose in writing The Greatest Generation. Steven Spielberg captured the sacrifice of so many in the armed services with the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, the landing at Normandy and the thousands of lives lost to gain hold of a beachhead and advance freedom.
Tom Hanks played the lead in Ryan, and he has led another cause, the effort to erect a World War II memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. On Monday, President Bush signed legislation that will speed its construction. Who can argue with the eagerness or the sentiment?
What remains troubling is the location. The memorial will occupy the space opposite the Lincoln Memorial, at the other end of the Reflecting Pool. It will sit across the street from the lawn that runs to the Washington Monument. Critics complain that the memorial will crowd the last open space on the mall. (Those patches near the Capitol serve more as thoroughfares among the Smithsonian sites.)
The concern has substance. Put aside the architectural excesses, the collision with the classic shapes of the monuments already there. The memorial risks cluttering the elegant sight lines that connect the ideas of the republic, the founding, the loss and renewal of the Civil War, the continuity represented by the Capitol.
That isn’t to diminish the reality of fighting for those ideas, but the ideas alone merit honor and celebration.
Other war memorials can be found on the mall. The Vietnam memorial (and to a lesser extent the Korean memorial) serves a very different purpose, the struggle for reconciliation. World War II hasn’t been burdened by complexity and doubt. The appreciation has deepened over the years.
Not far from the mall, the Iwo Jima memorial rises. Even more striking are the cemeteries, especially at Arlington, Normandy and Punchbowl Crater in Hawaii. In so many ways (Pearl Harbor, most recently), World War II has been remembered. Another expression may not be necessary. If it is, better to do so without cluttering the ideas so many sacrificed to preserve.
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