Kirk Savage -- Finding Heroes, Victims and Violence on the National Mall

By Kirk Savage
Sunday, June 14, 2009

When James W. von Brunn stepped across the threshold of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last Wednesday and, as police allege, began shooting, he did more than terrorize a city, strike out against a particular community and end the life of a brave security guard. He also entered into and violated Washington's much larger memorial landscape, one that has shifted dramatically over the past century.

Washington's streets and squares once only celebrated the triumphs of great white heroes who "made history" -- men such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, individuals who won the battles and made the laws that set the nation on a path of expansion and achievement. But in the early 20th century, these statues of powerful men astride horses or standing on pedestals began to give way to new kinds of memorials. First, the capital started honoring ordinary soldiers who had simply done their duty -- whether in the Civil War or World War I or Vietnam. Later, the memorials extended to civilians caught unwillingly in history's traumas -- victims of shipwreck, genocide, mass internment, land grabs and other major disasters and crimes.

Victim monuments such as the Titanic Memorial in Southwest Washington, the Holocaust Museum, the Japanese American Memorial and, most recently, the Victims of Communism Memorial, are now so common that it is hard to imagine the capital without them. Yet though we like to think that the nation's monuments reflect our history and heritage back to us, the changes have run ahead of what many are able to grasp. "Think about what you saw," declares a panel on the outer wall of the Holocaust Memorial. That is hard to do, especially when heroes and victims mingle together, shifting back and forth, within the Holocaust Museum and across the Mall and the city.

Men like von Brunn, who once would have seen themselves reflected and validated in the old white male heroic landscape, now see themselves as the nation's victims, dispossessed by the very "outsiders" -- Jews, African Americans and others -- who have gained symbolic territory on the National Mall. As von Brunn's hateful writings and alleged actions tragically demonstrate, this claim to victimhood goes hand in hand with the victimization of others.

In the 19th century, monuments in Washington's streets or public squares never commemorated victims. Victimization is powerlessness; monuments celebrated its opposite. The statues of commanders and politicians that spread through the city's parks and traffic circles reaffirmed the power of great men to take decisive action, to transform the nation or to rescue it from peril -- even if their actions created victims. Andrew Jackson, gazing at the White House on his rearing bronze horse from Lafayette Park since 1853, ordered the expulsion of the Cherokee on the infamous "Trail of Tears," leaving thousands dead. But not even his political opponents dreamed of acknowledging this in the forum of the public monument. Ordinary citizens of the era -- namely, the white men who had a monopoly on full citizens' rights -- looked up to these statues, quite literally, and also saw themselves reflected, even if dimly, in the hero's glory.

In the first decade of the 20th century, an American protégé of the great French sculptor Rodin won a design competition for a monument to Commodore John Barry, an Irish-born hero of the Revolutionary War. Instead of simply depicting him on a pedestal, as expected, the sculptor surrounded the hero with a huge frieze of nude, writhing figures that told the long, painful history of the Irish people's dispossession and their exodus to America. The Irish American sponsors of the monument were aghast and went all the way to President William Howard Taft to stop it. They succeeded in replacing the design with a banal effigy of the hero above a female figure of victory. Today the pair stand forlornly in Franklin Park on 14th Street in Northwest Washington.

If the original Barry memorial was ahead of its time, by 1922 a new kind of monument appeared. That is when the huge memorials to Lincoln and Grant were finally finished, at opposite ends of a Mall that was still only in the making.

Lincoln and Grant were hero monuments, of course, but they marked major shifts not only in subject matter but also in the emotional experience they evoked. The Lincoln Memorial is so familiar today that it is hard to imagine what a departure it must have seemed at the time. Compare it to its once famous predecessor, the high Victorian monument to Lincoln in Lincoln Park, which has the 16th president standing with the Emancipation Proclamation in hand, sundering the chains of a slave crouching at his feet. Leaving that world of moral certainty and entering the inner precincts of the Lincoln Memorial, viewers confront a brooding figure with empty, restless hands surrounded by his own complex thoughts engraved on the walls to either side -- a pregnant space of history, resonant of hard choices.

On the other end of the axis, at the foot of the Capitol, the monument to Grant is no ordinary equestrian one like those in the traffic circles, but a meditation on the ordinary soldiers who fought and suffered under his command. These heartbreaking figures of warriors huddled in the cold or trampling a fallen comrade are spread out in clusters on an enormous platform, inviting visitors to peer into the maelstrom of combat. With Grant and Lincoln alike, there is a deliberate absence of comforting historical closure and a call instead to observe the full tragedy of history.

These psychologically charged, introspective memorials were instrumental in recasting the Mall as a space of national soul-searching. The Lincoln Memorial became the place where Jimmy Stewart questioned his ideals in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and where Martin Luther King Jr. would challenge a racially segregated nation to recommit to emancipation and justice.

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, while brilliantly original, was at the same time an outgrowth of these developments. Her critics on the right, who found the sunken black wall anti-heroic, may have won a small tactical victory in adding Frederick Hart's soldier statues, but they failed to turn back a tide that had long been coming. The sponsors of the original monument justified it by drawing attention to the uniqueness of the soldiers' suffering. The opponents were right to sense that this was a point of no return; the floodgates would be open to many more such "unique" victims of disastrous wars, racist ideologies and unjust policies.

If accident victims could be engraved on Lin's wall, why not those who died of Agent Orange exposure or as a result of post-traumatic stress? If a museum for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust could be erected on the edge of the Mall, why not memorials addressing home-grown oppression -- the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the confinement of American Indians on reservations, or the enslavement of African Americans? All these new memorial recognitions have come to pass, emerging one after another in what some critics on the right have characterized as a virus of victimization.

"Here we admit a wrong," ring out the unlikely words of President Ronald Reagan, permanently fixed in stone on a fountain at the Japanese American Memorial at Louisiana Avenue and D Street Northwest. Admitting historical injury does not reveal an evil at the nation's core, as some seem to think: It is a positive step thanks to which many Americans have come to see themselves reflected for the first time in the nation's memorial landscape. Yet the words unwittingly beg us to square our many wrongs with one another and with the triumphal story of national destiny that still rears its head, in hero monuments to Jefferson, World War II and, ironically, Franklin Roosevelt -- the very man responsible for the wrong that Reagan was forced to redress.

The day of the attack at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was in Washington to take my teenage daughters -- adopted from Vietnam -- to that museum to see Janet Langhart Cohen's play, "Anne and Emmett," about Anne Frank and Emmett Till. My daughters learned a lesson that day, though not the one I had planned. They learned that the tragedies of history -- such as slavery, racism and anti-Semitism -- can follow us into the future and flare up in violence. The choice of this museum as the starting point for an attack shows that, however imperfect, the commemorative moves we make on the Mall do matter.

We may be ready for a change in this landscape, a move beyond victim and victimizer. It is time for the nation's monuments to make connections across these boundaries of suffering, instead of pitting one group's pain against another's. In the aftermath of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum -- a place that is dedicated to the tragedy of the Jewish people but also seeks to spotlight genocide in Darfur and elsewhere -- impromptu memorials appeared to Stephen Tyrone Johns, the African American security guard who was killed in the attack. Such gestures make explicit the connections we already knew were there, but we could do much more to show what all these stories have in common and how we must reckon with collective responsibility. There is room in Washington for a commemorative landscape that, in the words chiseled on Roosevelt's memorial, "recognizes that the whole world is one neighborhood and does justice to the whole human race."

Kirk Savage, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, is author of "Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape," forthcoming in October. He will be online to discuss this essay at 11 a.m. on Monday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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