A Paean, in Stone and Bronze, to Those Who Vanquished Evil
Certainly the war defined an epoch of cunning and miscalculation, of sacrifice and self-indulgence, of ambiguity, of love, of malice and mass murder. It was a time when heroes came forth, but it was not an age of heroes if that implies universal nobility and statuary as clean and white and lifeless as alabaster. For many American veterans -- infused with the irony and skepticism that soldiering often nurtures -- the notion that they embody the greatest generation seems fatuous. In part that reflects rival claims from both the Founding Fathers and the Civil War generation, but it also reflects a realization that the war was too immense to be confined to a single generation: The senior military and civilian leaders mostly were born in the 1880s and 1890s -- Roosevelt in 1882, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1890 -- while the trigger-pullers mostly were born in the 1910s and 1920s.
The war also shaped a world. Its technological legacies include radar, jet airplanes, ballistic missiles, computers -- first developed to enhance code-breaking -- nuclear weapons, various medical miracles and industrialized genocide.
No less profound, World War II strangled the sinister ambitions of Germany, Japan and Italy; signaled an end to the British and French empires; politically fractured both a continent -- Europe -- and individual countries, such as Korea, Vietnam and Germany; led to the creation of both the United Nations and NATO; and yielded a bipolar world of Soviet and U.S. superpowers that persisted for a half-century.
"World War II had been about liberty," writer Mark Arnold-Foster has observed, and the Big One spawned independence movements and colonial wars that led to the creation of modern India, Pakistan, Ghana, Burma, Kenya, Israel and other states in a fermentation that continues to this day.
Domestically, the United States would never be the same. Although women accounted for only 2 percent of Americans in uniform, and blacks generally received second-class treatment in the armed forces, their vital roles in the nation's war effort created new opportunities and stirred new ambitions, fueling both the equal rights and civil rights movements.
Moreover, as the only major power to avoid devastating war damage at home, the United States emerged as an economic and military colossus. "Americans became involved commercially as well as diplomatically with the rest of the world to an extent that had no precedent in American history," Arnold-Foster wrote. "The new circumstances in which the United States found itself, including its new wealth, had made isolationism impractical as well as out of date."
Somehow the new memorial will attempt to embody all of this: sacrifice, ingenuity, determination, faith, change and the rise and fall of generations. Perhaps because it is so ambitious, the project has been a long time coming. Legislation calling for construction of a World War II memorial was first introduced in Congress in 1987 and eventually was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Amid protracted wrangling over the location and design -- "How the hell did we ever win World War II?" an exhausted architect wondered after one particularly contentious planning session -- the site was consecrated in 1995 with soil from 16 American war cemeteries.
The neoclassical array of arches and fountains, framing a sunken plaza, is the latest of more than 150 memorials now seeding Washington. They range from the obvious (Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant) to the improbable (Maine lobstermen and Dante) to the obscure (landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing and the father of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann). But only about one-third sit within what planners call Area I -- the city's monumental core -- and few occupy a more visible site or commemorate a more signal event.
To be an enduring success, this memorial must "respond to a very simple question that a 15-year-old high school student who comes to Washington asks the teacher 100, 200 years from now," Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-born architect who won the memorial design competition, said in an interview several years ago. "So what was World War II about? How was it different from the Mexican war, or the Spanish war, or World War I?"
Part of that answer can be found in the assessment of the British historian Martin Gilbert: "Although the Second World War is now far distant, its shadows are long, its echoes loud. How else could it be with an event, lasting for nearly six years, in which courage and cruelty, hope and horror, violence and virtue, massacre and survival, were so closely intertwined?"
And the inevitable and appropriate shedding of tears on the Mall this weekend will only confirm Gilbert's observation: "The greatest unfinished business of the Second World War is human pain."
Rick Atkinson is the author of "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943," which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history. His latest book is "In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat," a first-person account of the U.S. war in Iraq.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A view from atop the Washington Monument shows crowds visiting the new memorial. About 800,000 visitors are expected for the four-day festival accompanying the dedication of the memorial.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)