Friday, August 05, 2005


We do not make great or grand memorials anymore. The Vietnam Memorial is right, but it is not great or grand. There is something sadly off about the Korean War Memorial, as if someone held up a fuzzy mirror to the Vietnam wall across the way. The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial is a train wreck of epic proportions—an architecturally inconsistent celebration of our crippled, environmentalist, pacifist president (who, the designers might have taken note, also happened to have given hope to a nation in despair and done the major work in winning the Second World War). If a country could not properly honor one of its greatest presidents, there was little hope for the World War II Memorial.

The World War II Memorial sits in a place of prominence in the National Mall, but it is not all that prominent. By the standards of most memorials in the capital, it lies low to the ground, not obscuring the sight-lines of the Mall. That’s not to say it isn’t big. It spreads out over a large area. Stone columns inscribed with the names of states and territories line the perimeter. Two larger columns flank the memorial. One side is dedicated to the Pacific theaters; the other to the Atlantic. A low-lying wall emblazoned with four thousand gold stars is meant to symbolize the ultimate sacrifice made by over 400,000 Americans.

Perhaps most striking about the memorial is all the water. In front of the wall of stars sits a still pool. On either side, small waterfalls flow from another pool. In front of both major columns sit identical small pools, with water running here and there. And a massive fountain and pool dominates the middle of the monument. Jets of water continuously spray upward and diagonally. Not exactly like a fountain in Las Vegas, but if you’re thinking Oceans 11 (the new one) you’re not too far off. On a hot day like this past Saturday—a hot summer day in Washington! Gasp!—people gather around the central pool and dip their feet in the water.
It’s all very noisy. All the flowing water is like one of those relaxation CDs with the volume turned way up. Then there’s the people. In order to be heard over the water, they have to talk louder. In order to be heard over one another, they have to talk louder still. And they are taking pictures. With so spread out a memorial, there are lots of pictures to take.

The result is that the World War II Memorial is more like a carnival than a memorial. It’s a regular clamor, a cacophony, a hullabaloo. There is none of the melancholy sense of loss that accompanies the Vietnam Memorial; none of the overwhelming grandeur of the Jefferson Memorial; none of the stark power of the Washington Monument; none of the throat-catching solemnity of the Lincoln Memorial.

People gab away. They get together for group pictures. They splash their feet in the water and chase children who want to go in deeper. They smile and talk and soak up the sun. Tourists and locals, citizens and visitors from abroad, organized groups and unorganized humanity, all stomping through a monument to those who fought and died in the world’s greatest war.

There is nothing grand or great about it. It’s perfect.

(Originally posted at Rebunk.)


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