Why We Argue So Much About War Memorials

Roundup: Talking About History

Philip Kennicott, in the Wash Post (May 30, 2004):

Americans find the making of large national monuments so contentious and painful that it's surprising we build any at all. From 1987, when the idea was proposed in Congress, through this weekend's opening festivities, the National World War II Memorial has provoked so much controversy that it would be tempting to dismiss it all as just so much white noise from the black art of cultural criticism. But that would dismiss more than just an array of aesthetic and land use issues; it would dismiss a basic, contrarian stirring in the nation's psyche, a stirring as essential to the American democratic spirit as leavening to bread. Some cantankerous part of us does not like monuments at all. That is a good and important prompting, and something, if it weren't so paradoxical, that we should probably build a monument to honor.

What causes this unease? Consider stone. Stone is our central metaphor for things that are final, unassailable and commanding. Stonewall Jackson was unmovable; to stonewall is to be unyielding; a stony face refuses expression. And "set in stone" suggests that an idea, or a fact, has been placed in its ultimate form, beyond emendation and, often, beyond debate or contradiction.

Monuments are ideas set in stone, which is why they torment us. They are an attempt to place some fact, or some understanding of history, beyond dispute: This man was heroic; this war was good; these people should be remembered. They demand our assent to some basic proposition, which we can give or we can withhold. Successful monuments make clear statements, and earn (though not always at first) wide agreement; bad ones demand more than we can give, or lack clarity, and ultimately inspire resistance, indifference or division.

In a democratic society, there is a natural, healthy resistance to any kind of compliance with a final understanding of history. Historical understandings change. Good wars and good men don't necessarily seem so to later generations. And nothing, even a just war or a great man, is entirely good. The most basic message of any monument -- this war was good, or at least just -- brings with it other ideas, corollaries, embedded meanings that we are not so willing to agree with. And some essential part of American society -- call them critics -- refuses the finality of monuments with a reflexive unwillingness to cede any understanding to other people. At least not with the finality of stone.

Even as veterans, descendants, politicians and other celebrants gathered to participate in the opening of the World War II Memorial this weekend, debate about its merits continued, though you could hear a note of caution in the tone. It is taken for granted that the veterans of World War II deserve a memorial of some sort. And though that war has sparked controversy over Japanese American internment camps, the use of the atomic bomb, the firebombing of Dresden, none of this is on the table right now. The memorial simply assumes, and embodies, the language (and often the clichés) that have grown up around "the greatest generation," heroes all, who fought the "last great war."...

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