Design's Critics Not Listening To Their Hearts, Visitors Say
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page B01
Judy Warren has a word or two for anyone who thinks that the design of the National World War II Memorial is too busy, too impersonal, too lacking in the essential story of that great global conflict:
"As far as the critics go, they should just stay home," said Warren, 58, of Conway, N.C., who was visiting Washington's newest tourist attraction on the Mall along with thousands of others yesterday.
From some corners, criticism of the long-awaited monument to the veterans of World War II has been harsh -- and loud. Columnists and critics in such major publications as the New York Times, The Washington Post and the New Yorker have derided it for what they term a militaristic tone and empty grandeur and for not conveying to an uninformed visitor what the war was all about.
But to Warren and many others gathering at the memorial, the critics are missing the point.
"The heck with them," said Sam Boorse, 52, a Vietnam War veteran from East Liverpool, Ohio, as his wife, Diane, also 52, nodded in agreement. "It's not here for looks and design and remarks about appearance. It's for remembrance, to remember what the guys went through, what everybody went through, during that time."
Boorse's friend Wayne Brown, 50, agreed. "As long as it's a memorial, it could be a hole in the ground with a plaque on it and it wouldn't matter," he said. "It's in the heart."
As visitors young and old toured the 7.4-acre site, venomous critics were hard to find. World War II veterans in commemorative caps accepted thanks from strangers. Families posed for photographs in front of the memorial's pillars representing their states. Mothers sat with young children by the refurbished Rainbow Pool.
"I think it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. The size of it is striking," said Jill Wheeler, 33, of Woodbridge, as her 3-year-old son, Ben, played with his plastic dinosaurs at the pool's edge. "This is better than going to the mall. The shopping mall, I mean."
Like others interviewed, Wheeler said she was not bothered by the lack of context provided by the memorial. Some critics have said that it is little more than an overflowing collection of symbols -- 4,000 gold-plated stars representing the 400,000 U.S. war dead, for instance -- that provides few clues about the conflict and its combatants. Architect Friedrich St. Florian has said that he was trying to convey the victory of democracy over tyranny while including as many elements of the war as possible.
But a detailed summary is not what a memorial is about anyway, Wheeler said. "Really, with any memorial you go to, you have to have the stories that go behind it, and I think it's our responsibility to find them."
Nathan Detling, 20, an Army private from Scottsbluff, Neb., pointed out that using the critics' yardstick, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial "is just a bunch of names."
"But hopefully, you look at something like this," he said, indicating the pillars of the states marching around the rim of the memorial, "and you're inspired to go and read more."
There was only the gentlest of criticism from Sylvia Donbeck, 79, of Merrimack, N.H. She and her husband, Herman, 80, who served in the Navy during the war, are heartsick that a veteran friend of theirs died last Sunday before he could make it to the memorial's dedication. They wish that the monument could have been erected years ago, when more World War II veterans were in their prime.
"We would like it to be more personal," Sylvia Donbeck said. "If there were names [of the dead], it would make you have more feelings."
The teeming crowds were distracting as well, she said. "With too many people, it's too carnivalistic," she said. "I think I'll like it better when it quiets down, about six months from now. It will grow on you."
Jared Baranowski, 10, of Port Republic, Md., had no such reservations. "I think it's really cool," he said. His brother, Michael, 9, and friend Zack Friedel, 10, echoed their approval.
Jared has become something of a World War II historian, said his father, John. Jared likes to think about the wartime exploits of his grandfather Ed Baranowski, who recently died. "He was a medic," Jared said.
In the end, many said yesterday, that is all that matters -- that, finally, there is something to commemorate the sacrifices made by the Ed Baranowskis of America. Judy Warren thought about this as she toured the memorial with her brother-in-law Richard Hobirk, 82, a veteran from Jacksonville, Fla.
"I'll tell you what my brother-in-law said about all this," Warren said. He "didn't think he needed to be honored -- he just did his duty. He said he just appreciated the fact that they had a memorial. I thought that was so precious."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company