Blogs > HNN > Memorials

Jul 26, 2005 9:35 pm


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.

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More Comments:

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/27/2005

Don --
I agree both with the Civil Rights memorial and also with the WWII Memorial's effects on the sightlines that were once the greatest in America. uture generations will undoubtedly grow up not knowing the difference, but I will always know. Nonetheless, I do like the fact that it is one monument where people seem to be the most active, where they find a personal connection. DC more than anyplace in the US is all of ours, even if those of us who have lived there (and for whom the city is still home because of friends etc.) sometimes grow weary of it as a tourist city, and perhaps more than any major monument, the WWII Memorial brings that out.

Otherwise here was my take on the World War II Memorial last June, in the days after it first opened.

I tend to come closer to Tom than Marc on the FDR Memorial, though not quite as ardently. The Korean War Memorial is a disaster.


Don Graves - 7/27/2005

I don't like the location of the WWII memorial at all. The greatness of the Mall was its simplicity, beauty and the visual impact of an unobstructed view of the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. While the WWII memorial and the others should certainly be in a place of prominence, I am also of the mind that memorials to the brave men and women who fought in wars to protect our country or to free other people, etc., are more ancillary to what the Mall and the other memorials stand for.

My own opinion of the memorial has probably been colored by the fact that I am a DC resident and have lived full-time "inside the beltway" for the last 13 years. I'm sure Derek could also make a stron argument for a Civil Rights memorial in a similar place of prominence, perhaps near the Capitol, representing all those who struggled, suffered and died for cause of freedom.

Tom Bruscino - 7/27/2005

Obviously, I completely disagree about the FDR Memorial. It's not the Great Depression memorial--why would we want to honor the unemployed and desperate? Wasn't FDR all about giving them hope, making them feel like better times were coming? The focus on FDR's disabilities is a disservice to the man. He did not let his disabilities define him, they should not define his memorial (don't even get me started on the creepy columns with faces and hands and braille). The quotations are almost all ridiculous. "I hate war..." but not the infamy speech? The bizarre quotations about the environment? Then, of course, there is the fact that it looks nothing like any of the other memorials in the mall, it's sprawled out and messy, and it gives the impression that Eleanor became president after him. No, the FDR Memorial is bad history and poor design work. Lincoln and Jefferson blow it away.

As far as the WWII memorial goes, I thought I might need some addenda. I wish it was a grand memorial more like Lincoln or Jefferson, I just don't know where we would put it. It has a place of prominence, which is good, and the fact that it is more like a park than a memorial ended up touching me much more than I expected. I liked how people from all over the world were enjoying themselves there. I liked how Americans from all over the country were taking pictures of the columns for home states, sometimes with memorabilia from fathers or grandfathers propped up against the columns. I thought the 4000 stars were a little underwhelming and a little unclear, but the idea of gold stars is a good one. And the quotations all around the memorial are excellent. At least they preserved FDR's greatest and most important speech.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 7/26/2005

I am actually a huge fan of the FDR memorial, and consider it the most emotional, the most “real” of all of them, taking the observer through each term in office, honoring the unemployed and desperate with their own statue bread-lines, and memorializing his words as well as his image.

I am not a fan of the WWII memorial at all, and not because of its size and clatter, but because I find it simply inappropriate, at least compared to the solemn simplicity of the Vietnam memorial. The linking of every state column by chain is more reminiscent of the Revolutionary war, where separate entities joined together to defeat a common enemy, than WWII, by which time the idea of States fighting for anything other than a national purpose had been settled long ago. The number of stars seems strange and arbitrary, neither evoking the enormity of the loss, as in Arlington, nor as bold as the single plague or statue that decorates numerous cities throughout the nation of their honored war dead.

No, I am not a fan of the WWII memorial. Its size and location are, I think, fitting, given its international importance as the seminal moment of the 20th century. Its heart however, its soul, seem empty in its symbol-less design.