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The right way to remember the Great War

By William N. Brown,

As we pause this Veterans Day to remember Americans who have served in the armed forces, I’d like to draw attention to an unresolved legislative issue that casts a shadow over an important moment of remembrance that will soon be upon us: the World War I centennial.

This year, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) finally set aside a long-standing attempt to “nationalize” the D.C. World War I Memorial on the Mall. Unfortunately, the plan Poe has put forward in its place isn’t much better. He now seeks up to $10 million to create a World War I memorial on the other side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, in Constitution Gardens. The time and effort it would take to proceed with this initiative — not to mention the $10 million — would go a lot further if it were used instead to enhance the existing John J. Pershing Memorial and Pershing Park in time to mark the centennial of the Great War.

With the centennial just around the corner, there is little time to waste. The funding could be used to add statuary (perhaps in honor of the “the last doughboy” Frank Buckles, who died in 2011, as well as representatives of the other service branches), interpretive signage, a reproduction tank or biplane, and a modest visitors center. In fact, space on the ground floor of the John A. Wilson Building, adjacent to the park, could be set aside to serve as a volunteer-staffed National World War I Memorial Visitors Center, just as the Commerce Department houses the White House Visitors Center.

The result would be a full re-envisioning of Pershing Park as the National World War I Memorial in the nation’s capital. The Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia supports this vision for two compelling reasons:

First, the congressionally established American Battle Monuments Commission already considers its memorial to Pershing to be the national World War I memorial. Do we really need another?

Second, the Commemorative Works Act prohibits the addition of memorials on the Mall, and according to recent congressional testimony by Stephen Whitesell, the regional director of the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, Poe’s Constitution Gardens plan is in conflict with the intent of the act.

If we move forward now, the centennial offers an ideal timeline for reimagining Pershing Park. We propose the following sequence of events:

●July 28, 2014: Pershing Park is rededicated as the new National World War I Memorial to mark the centennial anniversary of the start of the war, and the winner of a design competition is announced.

●April 6, 2017: Interpretive signage is unveiled at a ceremony commemorating the United States’ entry into the conflict in Europe.

● Nov. 11, 2018: New sculpture and displays are dedicated to mark Armistice Day, the end of the war.

“Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,” Gen. Pershing said of those who served under him. To keep faith with these words, we must commemorate the centennial of World War I in an appropriate and timely manner. Will we rise to the occasion? Poe’s bill marks the third attempt in Congress to pass legislation to establish a National World War I Memorial on the Mall. If history is any indication, it will not pass — and in the meantime a window of opportunity to commemorate the Great War the right way will close. Pershing Park is a better answer.

The writer is the president of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia.

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