By Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
I am looking at an artist’s rendering for the World War II Memorial, which Congress and President Bush have decided with unseemly haste should deface the Mall. It looks like a big tacky mausoleum from a 19th century cemetery. Anyone of ordinary taste can see that it is boilerplate, utterly lacking the bold artistic vision which made the Vietnam Memorial one of the nation’s holy places.
To plonk it down on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, spoiling the vista, is a spectacularly bad idea. But Congress last week voted to bypass the usual regulatory process and rush into construction, and Bush signed the law on Memorial Day. Veterans of the war are dying every day, supporters of the memorial argued, and it is important that before they’re all gone they be recognized with this monstrosity.
There is some kind of awful symmetry in the fact that the wrong memorial is approved over the same weekend when “Pearl Harbor” opened in the nation’s movie theaters. As the memorial is to the Mall, the movie is to Pearl Harbor–a garish, expensive, tasteless exercise appealing to the lowest common denominator.
The memorial does not honor the veterans by inflicting a banal design on a sacred place. And the movie does not honor the deaths at Pearl Harbor by making them the backdrop for Hollywood cliches. Its pilots play games of chicken, treating historic airplanes like models in a video game. It forgets that Asians lived in Hawaii at the time of the war. It softens the history lesson with a love triangle of staggering idiocy. It informs us hundreds of sailors are trapped alive beneath the sea, and then never mentions them again as lovers quarrel.
Our government has rushed to aid both enterprises. The movie’s world premiere was held on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The World War II Memorial is being imposed by Congress over the protests of architects, urban planners and many of the veterans themselves. “We could have memorialized World War II in a place that would not have defaced the National Mall, which is a historic symbol of our nation’s democracy,” World War II veteran George Peabody told the Associated Press. “I will never feel good about this.”
Imagine a world in which good taste played a role equal with political expediency. In that world, the Navy would have asked to preview “Pearl Harbor,” would have found it appalling, and would have quietly refused the use of its aircraft carrier. And in that world, Congress and the president would have taken one look at the proposed memorial and seen that it was gaudy and inappropriate for the Mall.
That those who fought World War II should be honored, there can be no question. They saved modern civilization. It is as simple as that. Every living person owes them gratitude. They deserve to be honored (1) with a striking and powerful memorial, and (2) with a location for the memorial that will not stir resentment and disappointment in future generations.
As long as the World War II Memorial stands, it will always be described as an eyesore and a blot on the Mall. That is not the right way to honor the veterans. Long after the politicians who hurried it through have disappeared from the scene, their haste and bad taste will be discussed in classrooms and textbooks, and by ordinary citizens who walk out onto the Mall and see with their own eyes and their own common sense what Congress and Bush could not figure out: This is the wrong memorial in the wrong place.
As for “Pearl Harbor,” at least it isn’t playing on the Mall.
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