A Memorial That Doesn't Measure Up
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; Page B01
The great war memorials pack an emotional wallop and tell a story for the ages. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a cry of tragedy and darkness, but also a complicated tale of American diversity, democracy and dissent. Gettysburg is a solemnity even a century and a half later; it powerfully tells an eternal story of unity and purpose amid violent division.
The National World War II Memorial has the emotional impact of a slab of granite. If it tells any story at all, it is so broad as to be indecipherable. Nowhere does it honor the great war's transformational role in our history: There is no hint of how Americans of different regions, ethnicities and classes came together to fight evil and save freedom. There is barely any gesture toward the home front, the stirring story of sacrifice for the boys abroad.
The primary purpose of any memorial -- honoring those who fell to protect the rest of us -- is lost in a cluttered wall of gold stars that comes across more as a curious math problem (4,000 stars times 100 equals 400,000 war dead) than as an effective symbol. (The wall of stars communicates so poorly that it is supplemented with a stone subtitle reading "Here we mark the price of freedom." Ah.)
I had feared that this memorial would be the hodgepodge of cliche and Soviet-style pomposity that it is. But the damage this installation has done to the nation's ability to express its democratic emotions is worse than any critic had imagined. Think of last month's abortion-rights gathering. The photos showed a massive crowd stretching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol -- a jarring change from the usual vista: facing the Great Emancipator with the symbol of the Father of Our Country watching our backs.
By digging the World War II Memorial into the space between Lincoln and Washington, the forces that paid for this interruption of the Mall have ensured that we will no longer see masses of Americans celebrating or protesting at Lincoln's feet. The empowering walk from George to Abe is no more.
It is, however, cheering to see what an elegant and graceful restoration has made of the Rainbow Pool. That scummy pond that previously spoke only of neglect is now majestic, with fountains that add life and joy to the Mall's stately tone.
Alas, the pool is surrounded by architect Friedrich St. Florian's overbearing portals, overweight eagles and a bewildering procession of bronze wreaths that makes you feel like you're in one of those year-round Christmas shops found in lesser malls.
At every turn, designers chose the bombastic over the subtle. In the quotations inscribed on the walls, the choice was banal lists of adjectives over prose that might tell a story or impart an image. We read of "a magic blend of skill, faith and valor that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory," but why did no one say to St. Florian, "Friedrich, baby, show us the magic, make us feel the incredible."
No one fought harder to warn us of the memorial's deficiencies than Judy Scott Feldman, who leads the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
"We did everything we could when we thought we could make a difference," she says. "This does nothing to teach what the war was about. People will now realize that we've cordoned off a 71/2-acre piece of the Mall. It's like a mortuary scene without the coffin."
The time for should-haves is past. Some veterans I spoke to appreciate the memorial simply for being here, though nearly all preferred the FDR Memorial because it captures their time.
What we have lost here is the chance to teach future generations why World War II was fought and what this country's gift to civilization is and must be. I spoke to 20 teenagers at the memorial on opening day; only two could tell me what the war was about.
The memorial, said Randy Roman of Travers City, Mich., "is really cool. It gives me a sad feeling about how many people died." But when I asked Randy, who is 14, why the war was fought, he said, "I don't know. No idea."
Kelley Robinson, also from Travers City, said the war was "like, about Hitler and religious stuff," but she knew that from school, not the memorial.
A memorial is not a museum, but it has a duty to tell a story. This memorial tells us nothing more than that a big war happened and Americans died and we are proud of them and we are powerful. That is not enough.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company