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Honoring the Fallen in Past and Present Wars

The World War II Memorial, Nightline, and finding the time to remember.

by Mark D. Johnson
May 4, 2004

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The National World War II Memorial, honoring those who served in America’s deadliest foreign war, opened to the public on April 29, 2004, seventeen years after it was proposed, delayed by funding problems and controversy over the selected site on the National Mall. It is situated in an appropriately prominent location between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial at the east end of the reflecting pool. I visited the site on April 30, and that night, Ted Koppel, in a controversial installment of ABC’s Nightline, read the names of over 700 men and women who have died thus far in the War in Iraq. While the granite memorial is long overdue, the televised memorial has come too soon. But as we’ve seen recently with the bickering over the memorial designs for the World Trade Center site, it is difficult to please everyone when it comes to memorials.
A Grand, but Impersonal Tribute
The center of the football-field sized World War II memorial is occupied by a large, oval-shaped pool with many fountains. At the north and south ends of the plaza are two 43-foot arches, engraved with the words “Atlantic” and “Pacific,” respectively. The ends of the plaza’s perimeter are lined with fifty-six pillars, 17 feet tall, representing each state and territory and Washington, D.C. Toward the west is a commemorative “Freedom Wall” of 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 of the more than 400,000 Americans who died in the war.
It is a handsome memorial, providing at last a place to reflect on the sacrifices this country made in a terrible, but necessary war. The site is short on imagery, however. Twenty-four small bas-relief panels depicting the war years both at home and abroad line the wide main entrance, seemingly as an afterthought. I would like to have seen an iconic statue as the centerpiece – along the lines of the famous flag raising at Iwo Jima statue at the Arlington National Cemetery or the haunting beauty of the soldier statues of the Korean War Memorial. Without any dominant imagery, the structure fails to convey any meaning of the epic events of World War II.
The nearby Vietnam War Memorial, with its dark, angled wall displaying the names of every American casualty, provides a stark contrast to the white-columned grandiosity of the World War II memorial – a contrast directly proportional to the outcome of those wars. The former structure’s lack of imagery (the overlooked Three Servicemen statue aside) purposefully forces visitors to focus on the names of those who fell in a very problematic war. There is a solemnity there that does not exist at the new memorial, where victory is symbolized by eagles perched atop the noble arches. The personalization of lost loved ones at the Vietnam Wall, which compels many visitors to leave small flags and personal affects at its base, is missing entirely at its WWII counterpart, where freedom is emphasized, and rightfully so for such an important war in which good triumphed over evil. But why reduce the impact of our losses by putting them in groups of 100? Why not display 407,316 gold stars?
Nightline Toes the Line
It is said to be a wartime tradition in journalism to remind those at home of war’s high cost of life, but when ABC’s Nightline announced that it planned to display the photos of all Iraq War U.S. casualties as host Ted Koppel read their names, some questioned the show’s motives. The program stands accused of playing election-year politics in effort to underscore our loss at a time when public support for the war is waning. The show aired on the eve of the one year anniversary of President Bush’s declaration of the end of major hostilities while standing under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Was Nightline making a statement?
Koppel defended the broadcast, saying Nightline was taking a neutral position on the war, and that viewers, whether they support the war or not, could watch the show with all due respect to the soldiers who have died. Whether the show’s intentions were pure or not, the timing could have been better. If there was no political motivation, why not save the show for Memorial Day, the most appropriate day of the year for just this kind of remembrance? Few people would object to that.
Historical Perspective
The Vietnam War Memorial opened in 1982, after the nation had a decade to search its soul in the war’s aftermath. The result is a subtle, yet powerful memorial that reflects our emotions toward that war. It is my hope that our future National Iraq War Memorial will similarly echo the nation’s ultimate understanding and sentiment toward the war while showing great appreciation for those who served.
Historical perspective is useful not only for designing war memorials but also in reacting to them. In the case of the World War II memorial, I wonder if the design and our response to it would have been more meaningful had it been built in 1955, when the nation’s memory of that war was much sharper. Better late than never, but unfortunately, it’s too late now for many WWII veterans to visit our tribute to them.
It took Koppel 40 minutes to read 700+ names. If he were to read the names of all the World War II U.S. troops who died, it would take him around 370 hours – more than fifteen days. These are two very different wars, and the last page in the history of the current one is far from being written. Without a more complete context in which to place our Iraq casualties, it is difficult to know how to react, as the Nightline controversy illustrates. Memorial Day provides a larger context that includes all wars. For conflicts still in progress, there is no better time to remember.

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