The Vietnam War Memorial – a gravestone that inverts the Classical standard of the National Mall – is a brilliant work of public memory. It strips away everything but the names of Americans who lost their lives for a war that was at best controversial, and places them in black polished stone, reflecting with a critical stare the vaunted monuments of the founders. It speaks without raising its voice, and says more than a statue ever could.
Maya Lin’s masterpiece is one of a handful that I use as my yardstick when sizing up a new memorial. For war memorials are tricky business: they must glorify victory without glorifying violence, and exalt sacrifice without normalizing death. They must speak not only to the conflict but to its purpose or its effect. They must be at once a reflection of the individual soldier and the greater society they served. They must speak to something higher than fighting. Lin’s Vietnam Memorial is the only national war memorial that accomplishes this; neither the triumphalist bore of the World War Two Memorial or the well-intentioned but ultimately empty Korean War Memorial are able to contextualize their conflict – to reveal a deeper meaning. According to the designs released so far, the new National World War One Memorial will similarly fall short.
Unlike Washington DC’s other war memorials, the World War One memorial will not be on the National Mall. That’s by necessity rather than by choice: the Mall is closed to new construction. Instead, the memorial will refurbish the existing Pershing Park, a small parcel named for World War One General John “Blackjack” Pershing, just a block from the White House grounds.
The new memorial is called “The Weight of Sacrifice.” It contains three major elements: a “Wall of Remembrance” that features soldiers and civilians experiencing war; a wall of quotes about war and sacrifice; and a central sculpture called “The Wheels of Humanity” (seen in cover image) which claims to “recreate the engine of war.” These elements accomplish two things primarily: they focus attention, rightly, on the soldiers and civilians who served and died; and they nod to ideas of patriotic sacrifice.
The raised form in the center of the site honors the veterans of the first world war by combining figurative sculpture and personal narratives of servicemen and women in a single formal expression. The integration of a park around and atop the memorial alludes to the idea that public space and personal freedom are only available through the sacrifice of our soldiers. Above all, the memorial sculptures and park design stress the glorification of humanity and enduring spirit over the glorification of war.
This is all, perhaps, true. Yet it is also empty: these same words cold be spoken of any conflict. The whole design carries with it this implicit message: the only thing worth remembering from this conflict (any conflict?) is the sacrifice of soldiers for freedom. And while this is a noble thing, here it appears interchangeable. There is no context or commentary, no attempt to speak to something higher about this conflict. And there is much to be said about the First World War that should still matter to us – about democracy, about engagement, about identity and belonging and citizenship.
The First World War was America’s shortest war: though it raged in Europe and around the world for more than four years, the United States was involved for just over one. Yet in that single year, over 115,000 Americans gave their lives – as many as in the Spanish American War, the Korean War, Vietnam, both Iraq Wars, and Afghanistan combined. It has the third highest death toll of any American conflict. Americans fought, they believed, for the purest of reasons: the defense of democracy and the end of war itself. The war did not pass without significant impact on American culture, either: it caused tremendous demographic, cultural, and political shifts that have not faded away even today. Yet it is rarely mentioned among the country’s defining conflicts, a list that tends to limit itself to the Revolution, the Civil War, World War Two and Vietnam. Though Korea is often called “The Forgotten War,” The Great War – a defining, culture-altering conflict in Europe – is shrouded in fog here.
There are many reasons for this. It was not a war to gain land, or to defend it. The ideals it was fought for – internationalism, cooperative peace, global order – were largely abandoned by an inward-facing nation in its aftermath. It was not a war for the soul of the nation like the Civil War had been; nor was it seen as an adventuresome lark like the Spanish War fifteen years before had been. Certainly it has now been overshadowed by the Second World War in scope and impact. The First War lacked also the sense of heroic achievement that accompanied its successor, with its monumental enemies and titanic clashes. Instead, the First World War was an accident of empires, fought with trench warfare and deadly technology that turned most battles into disease-ridden hospital wards and most daring charges into suicide. World War Two gave us Casablanca and ; World War One gave us Wilfred Owens’ Dulce Et Decorum Est.
Yet when we look past the nature of the conflict to its effect, we see a war that helped define twentieth century America: a debate over global engagement or isolationist withdrawal; a growing progressive movement smothered by calls for patriotic unity; a strengthening of white supremacy in the face of migrant African Americans filling northern jobs during war time; great gnashing of teeth over gender roles as women demanded the right to vote by picketing a wartime President. We see a renewed terror over immigration as Bolshevism and Anarchism play bogeyman during the Red Scare, and we see the apogee of the American Eugenics Program, which saw in the First World War a clash of races instead of empires, and swore to win it. We see in the war a nation confronted by the cost of technology, shaken from its sense of geographic isolation for the first time by trenches, submarines, zeppelins, and gas canisters. Yet we also see a nation taking great technological leaps as the 1920s begin: the decade of automobiles, movies, and Charles Lindbergh takes its cue from the war.
A good memorial to the Great War doesn’t have to incorporate all of that; it couldn’t, without being an overwrought mess. But it must acknowledge what made the war meaningful. What was the sacrifice for? What did it create? For a conflict as poorly remembered as this one, a memorial serves as public history as well as remembrance. It is here that the winning design falls flat.
This memorial is what happens when we try to depoliticize conflict, when we unquestioningly canonize the military, and when we put patriotism ahead of criticism. We find ourselves remembering our past in its most reductive terms – war without real conflict, sacrifice without meaning. In presenting a conflict stripped of complication, we’re given a story of war that is somehow soothing: the “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper sticker of memorials. We have no shortage of patriotic display in the United States, but we often lack a critical eye to it. When we reduce the sacrifices we ask of men and women in uniform to ‘they died for our freedom’ without looking at the cause or the result of that sacrifice, we place the act of dying ahead of the act of questioning.
Properly memorializing conflict means questioning. It means having hard conversations and wrestling with difficult ideas. This memorial skirts them for the easy emotions – sacrifice and patriotism are reduced to buzzwords when stripped of context. A war memorial should add to or challenge our existing understanding, not simply pat it on the head. Yet what we as a nation remember of the First World War is exactly what this memorial gives us: there were soldiers, they struggled, and they died. That sacrifice is put forward as the point, not the result. That does a disservice to an already fading memory of the First World War, in all of its messy, idealistic, reactionary reality.