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Our Wars

The Smithsonian's New Military Exhibit, Choosing Its Battles Well

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page C01

Showing unusual courage, the Smithsonian has charged onto the controversial battleground of America's wars -- and generally done well.

The National Museum of American History exhibition opening today to mark Veterans Day is the first overview of U.S. military history the Smithsonian has ever mounted. Indeed, the museum says, it is "the most comprehensive exhibition of military conflicts in American history." Some might be put off by the loaded title, "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War." But behind that red-state rubric is a well-balanced show, with enough combat gear to please the warriors, enough emphasis on casualties and Indians and blacks and women to comfort the loyal opposition, and enough balance to satisfy most historians.


Displays at the National Museum of American History's new permanent exhibit include a Huey helicopter from the Vietnam War era and, above, equipment from World War II. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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If nothing else, here's your chance to see -- among hundreds of other artifacts -- Gen. Philip Sheridan's black battle horse Winchester, stuffed and on regal display.

My advice: Skip the first 100 years and go directly to the Civil War. I'm a huge fan of the French and Indian War, which arguably was more important than the American Revolution in shaping the country. I've read the histories, old and new, and watched "Last of the Mohicans" more times than I care to confess. But my eyes glazed over after the third or fourth case showing a large-caliber 18th-century musket, cavalry saber or British uniform. These felt to me like the musty trappings of war, not its vital essence. I was reminded of Richmond's dull Museum of the Confederacy, with its endless uniforms of half-forgotten generals, the kind of exhibition that gives museums a bad name.

The show begins to feel less like a walk-in version of a high school textbook and more like a worthwhile weekend destination when it gets to World War II. By then, modern media had appeared. Walk by a big .30-caliber machine gun, for example, and then, a few steps later, start the video display of the 1943 assault on Tarawa and see a Marine charging across the bloody Pacific sand with that big-barreled weapon in hand. Watch a cartoon, catch a Bob Hope show -- he was actually funny back then, in a Robin Williams-ish way -- and peer into part of a tail section from a B-17 Flying Fortress.

The weapons also become more varied, more horrible, and I think more interesting. There is an antitank bazooka, a 60mm mortar, a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun and a flamethrower.

The quality of the documents also improves with the World War II exhibits. One display shows Franklin Roosevelt's first draft of his Pearl Harbor speech, in which he began by calling Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in world history" -- a phrase he then thoughtfully revised with the word "infamy."

Some of the World War II displays also look at aspects of war usually studied only by military professionals, such as supply lines and support troops. "For each infantryman in combat, ten other men -- and women -- in uniform provided support or supply services," a display states. I was glad to see a small salute to military chaplains, having learned a new appreciation for them last spring in Iraq after my father died while I was embedded with the 1st Infantry Division near Najaf.

Near the end of the World War II section, you can almost feel the curators holding their breath as the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan approaches. This is an area that the Smithsonian has found to be a minefield in the past. Here, the exhibition almost tiptoes past this "controversial decision," as the display puts it, simply stating the military rationale for it: Despite fearsome losses, Japan hadn't surrendered, and in fact had inflicted enormous costs during the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. "Japanese suicide attacks on U.S. ships had killed more sailors in two months than in the previous two years," it continues. "More than one million troops were moving to invade Japan when the first bomb destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945."

The Vietnam War section is dominated by a real UH-1 Huey helicopter, one of the emblems of that time. Its 48-foot-long rotor, the long flat wing that produced the characteristic "whop whop" sound heard in every movie about this war, stretches across the space. Around the corner, the "living-room war" is remembered by a crazy stack of 16 televisions playing news reports and other footage from the Southeast Asia of the 1960s. Before it sits a coffee table and a couch.

The show also packs some surprises. This isn't just a greatest-hits parade. It downplays some wars -- correctly, in my view -- and gives unexpected attention to other conflicts. For example, the fight over slavery in Kansas in the 1850s receives almost as much display space as the Korean War. The low-intensity Kansas fighting gets a respectful, even witty presentation. There is a wooden box marked "BIBLES" that is dark inside. But press a button and its contents are illuminated: two .52-caliber 1853 Sharps carbines -- the so-called "Beecher Bibles" shipped in to arm the abolitionists.

Likewise, the wars against the Indians are presented as an important part of American history. Despite the flag-waving title of the show, the content here is careful to note shameful episodes, such as the expulsion of the Cherokees from their southeastern lands onto the "Trail of Tears" -- the trek into western exile that killed about 4,000 members of the tribe. The display notes that the impulse for this action was, in large part, the discovery a few years earlier of gold in northern Georgia "on land that the Cherokees had long controlled."

A surprise inclusion is the Cold War. The curators take a novel approach to this most difficult-to-present conflict. On one wall, near a big plate glass window, is a placard reading "Target: Washington," which states that during the late 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States "targeted each other's capitals for nuclear attack." It takes a moment to realize that the window, and the view beyond it of some American flags and a slice of government buildings in Federal Triangle, with some contrails across the blue sky not unlike those Soviet bombers would have left in their wake, is the display. It is subtle and chilling: Suddenly, you the viewer are part of this living history exhibition.

The 9/11 display -- another unexpected inclusion, and one that upon reflection works -- is perhaps the most eloquent part of the show. There is, of course, an iconic photograph of that lethal orange ball of flame blossoming from one of the World Trade Center towers. But most striking is the big, automobile-size section of steel column from the 70th floor of the South Tower -- rust-brown, twisted, partly burst in one section. If it were an abstract sculpture it could be called "Pain."

Any show attempting to cover this much will fall on its face occasionally. There are several major disappointments here.

Most unsatisfactory is the handling of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, aka Desert Storm. It is represented by two lackluster battle uniforms and some minor verbiage. It feels like an ill-informed afterthought. There is no sense of what made that war historically significant, especially the major technological innovations that debuted there. (Colin Powell, a skeptical old infantryman, is said to have remarked as cruise missiles were about to be launched for the first time in combat, "now we will see if these things work.") Although that conflict also marked the first extensive use of precision "smart" bombs and radar-evading "stealth" aircraft, no mention is made here.

Nor is the display on the current war in Iraq worthwhile, even as our headlines and television screens fill with the assault on Fallujah. But by even including this conflict here, the curators may have set themselves an impossible task.

The fighting is not even history yet, and no one knows what it ultimately will mean for the country or how it should or will be remembered. Even so, they could have been more thoughtful than simply to repeat Pentagon rhetoric about how "major combat operations took less than two months," given that about 90 percent of U.S. soldiers' deaths in Iraq have occurred since then.

One caution: The emphasis on casualties, especially in forceful photographs from the Civil War and the world wars, gives the exhibition a PG-13 feel. Indeed, at the entrance is an unusual statement, in red and yellow letters, warning that "This exhibition includes graphic images of war and its casualties that some visitors may find disturbing, or inappropriate for young children."

That said, the exhibition features less violence than the average video game nowadays, and offers many lessons worth learning, especially in a country at war.

The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, a permanent exhibit of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, opens today on the Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., except Christmas Day. Admission is free. Call 202-633-1000 or visit americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory.


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